Thanksgiving: the first celebration
Oleh Willa Lydia Sullivan - Massachusetts, USA
Moderator Forum & Tim Baksos International


In 1621, the Plymouth colonist and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast which is acknowledge today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonist. This harvest meal has become a symbol of cooperation and interaction between English colonists and Native Americans (Indians). Although this feast is considered by many to the very first Thanksgiving celebration, it was actually in keeping with a long tradition of celebrating the harvest and giving throughout the Americas, including the Pueblo, Cherokee, Creek and many others organized harvest festivals, ceremonial dances, and other celebrations of Thanks for centuries before the arrival of Europeans in North America.

Pilgrim woman keeps a watchful eye on the evening’s supper at Plimoth Plantation.

Historians have also recorded other ceremonies of Thanks among European settlers in North America, including British colonists in Berkeley Plantation, Virginia. At this site near the Charles River in December 1619 a group of British settlers led by Captain John Woodlief knelt in prayer and pledged "Thanksgiving" to God for their healthy arrival after a long voyage across the Atlantic. This event has been acknowledged by some scholars and writers as the official first Thanksgiving among European settlers on record. Whether at Plymouth, Berkeley Plantation, or throughout the Americas, celebrations of thanks, and particularly of the feast, have survived the centuries as people throughout the United States gather family, friends, and enormous amount of food for their yearly Thanksgiving meal.

What Was Actually On The Menu?

What food topped the table at the first harvest feast? Historians aren't completely certain about the full bounty, but it's safe to say the pilgrims weren't gobbling up pumpkin pie or playing with their mashed potatoes. Following is a list of foods that were available to the colonist at the time of the 1621 feast. However, the only two items that historians know for sure were on the menu are venison and wild fowl, which are mentioned in primary sources. The most detailed description of the "First Thanksgiving" comes Edward Winslow from A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth in 1621:

"Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit 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 among other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of Massasoit, with some ninety 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 upon 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."

Seventeenth Century Table Manner

The pilgrims didn't use forks; they ate with spoons, knives, and their fingers. They wiped their hands on large cloth napkins, which they also used to pick up hot morsels of food. Salt would have been on the table at the harvest feast, and the people would have sprinkled it on their food. Pepper, however, was something that they used for cooking but was not available on the table.

In the seventeenth century, the person's social standing determined what he or she ate. The best food was placed next to the most important people. People did not tend to sample everything that was on the table (as we do today), they just ate what closest to them.

Serving in the seventeenth century was very different from serving today. People were not served their meals individually. Foods were served onto the table and then people took the food from the table and ate it. All the servers had to do was move the food from the place where it was cooked onto the table.

Pilgrims did not eat in courses as we do today. All of the different types of foods were placed on the table at the same time and people ate in any order they chose. Sometimes there were two courses, but each of them would contain meat dishes, puddings, and sweets.

More Meat, Less Vegetables

Our Thanksgiving repast is centered around the turkey, but that certainly wasn't the case at the pilgrims feasts. Their meals included many different meats. Vegetable dishes, one of the main components of our modern celebration did not really play a large part in the feast mentally of the seventeenth century. Depending on the time of year, many vegetables were not available to the colonists.

The pilgrims probably did not have pies or anything sweet at the harvest feast. They had brought some sugar with them on the Mayflower but by the time of the feast, the supply had dwindled. In addition, they did not have an oven so pies, cakes, and breads were not possible at all. The food that was eaten at the harvest feast would have seemed fatty by 1990's standards, but it was probably healthier for the pilgrims than it would be for people today. Heart attack was the least of their worries. They were more concerned about the plague and pox.

Surprisingly Spicy Cooking

People tend to think of English food at bland, but in fact, the pilgrims used many spices, including cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, pepper, and dried fruit, in sauces for meats. In the seventeenth century, cooks did not use proportions or talk about teaspoon and tablespoons. Instead, they just improvised. The best way to cook things in the seventeenth century was to roast them. Among the pilgrims, someone was assigned to sit for hours at a time and turn the spit to make sure the meat was evenly done.

Dinner for Breakfast: Pilgrims Meals

The biggest meal of the day for the colonists was eaten at noon and it was called “nonmeat” or dinner. The homemakers would spend part of their morning cooking that meal. Supper was a smaller meal that they had at the end of the day. Breakfast tended to be leftovers from the previous day's “nonmeat”.

In a pilgrim household, the adults sat down to eat and the children and servants waited on them. The foods that the colonists and Wampanoag Indians ate were very similar, but their eating patterns were different. While the colonists had set, eating pattern—breakfast, dinner, and supper—the Wampanoag tended to eat when they were hungry and to have pots cooking throughout the day.


Curtin, Kathleen; Feast Fact; retrieved November 23, 2008 from
Hancock, Roger W; History and Origin of Thanksgiving: the Thanksgiving Story; retrieved November 23, 2008 from
History Made Everyday; The History of Thanksgiving: the first Thanksgiving; retrieved November 23, 2008 from

Photo "What’s Cooking at Plimoth Plantation", credited to The New England Antiques Journal.



Survival Strategies for a Happy Thanksgiving

Holidays, especially ones that involve lots of concentrated family time can test our emotions, patience, and our best intentions to get along with loved ones.

Here are some tips to help you weather the next few days...after thanksgiving:

1. Pace yourself while traveling;

To be with friends and family members, but be aware during long-distance drives of the risk of drowsy drinking. If you are flying, leave plenty of extra time because the airport are extra crowded, and you will want to avoid the stress of rushing.

2. Do not drink and drive;

Be cautious about drinking alcohol to excess during the holidays, and especially do not drink and drive!

3. Schedule social event wisely;

Attending too many gatherings can leave you exhausted and unable to take pleasure in the holidays. Doing too few can leave you feeling alone and melancholic. Because routine and activities are suspended. Avoid large gaps of time spent alone.

4. Celebrate wherever you are;

One of the most memorable Thanksgiving was spent on-call at the hospital. Those of us working that day planned ahead and brought in home.

5. Be mentally and emotionally present;

Enjoy this year celebration; do not try to recreate past holidays-that will just create anxiety. Parents and children should allow their relationships to mature.

6. Savor the time spent together;

If you are visiting with older relatives, learn more about your heritage before it is too late. Make sure that all the generations can participate in festivities, and that everyone has a role to play.

7. Be thankful; remember it is thanksgiving—we all have a lot to be grateful for—share your thankfulness with others.


Neubauer, David, M.D; Survival Strategies for a Happy Thanksgiving retrieved November 23, 2008 from