The Three-Day Thanksgiving

Most of us are generally familiar with the story of the first Thanksgiving, as the Pilgrims and the Native People in the region–called the Wampamoag–gathered to feast and celebrate the bountiful harvest that, with the assistance of the helpful Wampamoag, ended a period of severe want and deprivation and helped to save the Pilgrims from starvation.

We tend to visualize the event as a kind of stodgy sit-down dinner, but the only surviving account of the actual first Thanksgiving suggests that it was a slightly different and far more relaxed affair. The account was written by Edward Winslow in the fall of 1621 in a letter later delivered back to a friend in England. Winslow described the event as follows:

“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.”

In short, the first Thanksgiving was at least a three-day feast that featured hunting, other forms of entertainment, eating five deer and a variety of wildfowl (including, in all likelihood, wild turkey as well as duck, geese, and swans) thanks to the efforts of the Wampamoag and the Pilgrims, and enjoying the company of the entire Pilgrim settlement and more than 90 members of the Wampamoag, too. Other records of the Plymouth Colony suggest that the feast also would have included a variety of vegetables, maize supplied by the Wampamoag, fruits, and nuts.

This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for good health and prosperity among my family members, friends, and colleagues, and for many other things–including the generous spirit shown by the Pilgrims and the Wampamoag (who you can read about here) in sharing the bounty of the land just over 500 years ago. I’m also grateful, frankly, that while we have maintained the tradition of a Thanksgiving celebration, we’ve shortened it from three days of revelry to just one. I’m not sure my waistline could endure three full days of feasting.