“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that we might after a more special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some 90 men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.” — Edward Winslow
Those lines from a 1621 letter from a leader of the Plymouth colony are the only known firsthand record of what many consider the first Thanksgiving. Some historians date the holiday to 1610, when Jamestown colonists held a service giving thanks for the arrival of supply ships carrying food. Three years prior, here in Maine, English colonists joined Abenaki people along the Kennebec River for feasting and prayer. Harvest celebrations had a long tradition among both Europeans and native peoples.
Romanticized stories of the 1621 Thanksgiving ignore the horrors that were to come for Native Americans and those that had already taken place. Still, mutual gratitude for things as essential to human well-being as food and fellowship can bridge divides – even if only for a short time. Therein lies the power in the Thanksgiving story.
A few months after the Battle of Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln issued a thanksgiving proclamation on Oct. 3, 1863. He urged Americans to give thanks and praise and “…fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.” Ensuing presidents declared annual days of thanks and the “first” Thanksgiving grew in myth and legend.
Did the Pilgrims and Wampanoag dine on turkey? Maybe. Venison for sure. No potatoes or pie. Also, the festivities were more of a diplomatic summit than a gathering of loved ones.
These days, it’s all about family and food. It remains an opportunity to “rejoice together,” entertain, feast, share the bounty and hedge against leaner times. To count blessings and grab happiness where we can. May the day find you full of heart and stomach.