Most Americans know the semi-mythological story of the first Thanksgiving, how the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony after a successful harvest in 1621 shared a meal with members of the Patuxet People of the Wampanoag tribe who had helped them plant their crops. But what we may not realize is that they were both acting out long-standing cultural traditions. The harvest festival, although it is celebrated at different times of the year and with different foodstuffs, is something found in every culture around the world.
The English settlers probably brought with them memories of the Michaelmas feast (September 29), the harvest festival on the English holiday calendar, a time to return home to eat together. The Wampanoag tribe had their own harvest festivals which coincided with the appearance of green corn and the arrival of certain fish species. In many African countries, the harvest festival, Odiwera, occurs at the time of the yam harvest. In Ireland, the first potatoes. In Hungary and Italy and Argentina, the grapes. In Papua, New Guinea, the pigs. In Bali, the rice. Everywhere, the festival usually involves a lavish meal, dancing, drinking, and ceremonies expressing gratitude to those (the gods or the farmers) who provided the food.
I am sometime annoyed by the insistence on recreating the ideal big family experience that accompanies Thanksgiving, an experience that is elusive but even in sitcoms, always triumphs over the forces of dysfunction arrayed against it. But I am ever so grateful that we have one holiday on the American holiday calendar that has not been co-opted by consumerism, that gathers us around a table to celebrate the food we’ve raised and cooked and shared with those we love.
This blog post first appeared at the Amber Lotus website, as part of a commissioned series of weekly posts on holiday lore.
The painting is called “The First Thanksgiving” and it’s by Jennie Brownscombe. I think it nicely illustrates the semi-mythological nature of the first Thanksgiving.