WHERE WAS THE FIRST THANKSGIVING?
PLYMOUTH HAS ITS CHALLENGERS, BUT IT’S STILL A FEAST FOR VISITORS
By Jerry Morris
Listen, my children, and you shall hear of the first Thanksgiving — a warm April day in 1598 when the conquistadors broke bread with the Piro and Manzo Indians in El Paso, Texas.
Texas? Conquistadors? April, not November? And 22 years before the Pilgrims? But wait. Before we finish this tale, let us not forget that others say that the first Thanksgiving was held in Virginia along the James River in 1619 in a little settlement called Berkeley. Still others contend it was in Jamestown, Va., or even Popham, Maine, in 1609. If all this is not enough, another claim is that the first official Thanksgiving Day was proclaimed in 1637, to commemorate the massacre of Indians near Groton, Conn.
Confused? Well, let’s add to that list. Diana Karter Appelbaum, in her book “Thanksgiving, An American Holiday, An American History,” notes that French Huguenots celebrated the “first Thanksgiving” near Jacksonville, Fla., at the Fort Caroline Memorial, and another marker, placed by no less than the Texas Society Daughters of the American Colonists, notes that a “Feast of First Thanksgiving” was held outside Canyon, Texas, in 1541, a full 79 years before the Pilgrims and 57 years before the other “first” one held in El Paso.
So if the Pilgims did not celebrate the “first Thanksgiving,” maybe it was the Puritans. After all, the Puritans — who landed in 1629 on the Massachusetts North Shore in Salem — were far more educated, more pious, more organized then the Separatists (the Pilgrims) to the south and went on to found Boston, the “city upon a hill” in 1630. Applebaum tells us that winter 1631 was bleak for the Massachusetts Bay Colony in Boston. So bad that Gov. John Winthrop declared Feb. 22, 1631, as a day of fasting and prayer, but, as that day approached, a ship bearing food from England appeared in Boston Harbor, and the governor quickly changed the proclamationto one of prayer and thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving, no matter who claims to have the first in North America, is a day of tradition, and there is no better place to experience it than in Plymouth, “America’s Home Town” (a claim that Hannibal, Mo., is trying to wrest from Plymouth, but that’s a whole other story) where the tradition, as we know it, began.
It is also, despite what those in Texas, Florida and elsewhere might claim, a very New England tradition. Massachusetts, in fact, is very fortunate in also having Old Sturbridge Village, where the spirit of Thanksgiving of the 1830s is re-created year after year.
As one might guess, Thanksgiving day is a grand day to be in Plymouth. Thousands of people will take part in the public Thanksgiving meal at Plymouth Memorial Hall, where turkey, cranberry sauce and all the fixings will be served. Reservations are recommended, although tickets will be available at the door as long as they last. Others will be dining along the waterfront, perhaps even on lobster, which the Pilgrims considered fit only for pigs.
And, while I cannot imagine Thanksgiving without Ocean Spray cranberry sauce (the jellied, not the relish type, thank you), the Pilgrims did not have cranberry sauce at their first meal.Nevertheless, you can build up for, or work off, the Thanksgiving meal by taking a 10-minute walk from Plymouth Rock to Cranberry World, where Ocean Spray will tell you more than you ever wanted to know about this berry. Free samples, too.
And don’t forget that the Pilgrims — 50 colonists out of 102 who survived that first winter along with Massasoit and his 90 Indians — celebrated their feast over a three-day period. That’s about as good an excuse as I can think of to do the same, and Plymouth and Old Sturbridge are good places to spend a long weekend.
Also in Plymouth on Thanksgiving Day is the Pilgrim’s Progress, a reenactment of the Pilgrims’ march to prayer. Fifty-two costumed marchers will participate marching to the First Parish Church at 10 a.m. where an interfaith service will be held.
There is a lot more to Plymouth than The Rock, but that’s about as good a place as any to begin a pilgrimage. From Plymouth Rock, the Mayflower II, a reproduction of the vessel the Pilgrims sailed in — and one that even sailed the Atlantic — is nearby to explore. The Pilgrims aboard — and the Pilgrims at nearby Plimoth Plantation — will certainly make you feel at home, but do not question them on anything that happened after 1627, for that’s the year they’re living in.
Across from The Rock, atop Coles Hill — where the Pilgrims held secret night burials, fearful that the Indians who had befriended them might turn on their weakened group — you can learn more about Pilgrim life in the National Wax Museum, or walk up Leyden Street, the country’s oldest street.
Unfortunately, there are no Pilgrim homes left, but scattered about the town are homes dating to 1640. There is also a handy information booth near The Rock, where a map and information on what is open are available. If you’ve got the children with you, drive or walk along the Town Brook through Brewster Gardens, the site of the original Pilgrim settlement, to Jenny Pond, where there is a grist mill and lots of ducks just waiting to be fed.
Pilmoth Plantation, of course, should not be missed. This reproduction of the village as it was in 1627 is just 3 miles from The Rock. There won’t be the kind of feast the Pilgrims might have enjoyed, though. Instead, the main meal will be from the Victorian era, a period when the Thanksgiving meal took hold on America. At Plimoth, they consider that the first Thanksgiving was more of a harvest festival — a tradition the Pilgrims would be very familiar with, having come from England. For their meal, the Pilgrims supplied fowl — maybe turkey — and the Indians brought deer.
While Thanksgiving meals at the plantation were long ago sold out, the village is open, and it will be a good time to meet the settlers in their homes or in the fields and maybe even have a few myths shattered — such as discovering the Pilgrims did not dress in black and wear funny hats.
Since the cranberry is the No. 1 crop in Massachusetts, one fun place to see where and how it is grown in bogs is the nearby Edaville Railroad in South Carver (closed, alas, on Thanksgiving). Here, you can board the narrow-gauge train for a 5 1/2-mile ride around the cranberry bogs, which at this time of year are colorfully lit for the holidays. Some 30 holiday scenes with 200,000 lights can be viewed nightly from 4 to 9, and weekends from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. Edaville is not open on Thanksgiving or Christmas, but the display continues through Jan. 6. For a family outing, Edaville includes a petting zoo — I still can’t forget the goat that dined on my genuine imitation leather jacket one year while my attention was on a reindeer — amusement rides, including a 90-year-old carousel, and a museum on New England heritage.
Of course, since this is the traditional start of the Christmas shopping season, a visit to my wife’s favorite Plymouth attraction, Cordage Park, should be on your list. Once the site of a huge rope-making factory, Cordage Park now is filled with discount stores and factory-outlet shops. Closer to The Rock is the Village Landing Marketplace, with many gift items, including one shop that sells only Massachusetts-made items. Plymouth Center also has a good selection of shops, and could easily be included on a walk up Leyden Street.
Plymouth has a wide range of accommodations, from bed-and-breakfasts to a close-to-the-waterfront Sheraton, complete with indoor pool and health club, and a lively ’50s night spot to end the day in.
By the time you’ve finished your weekend, you’ll need no convincing that “America’s Home Town” is also the home of the real thanksgiving.
By the 1830s, writers were taking Thanksgiving as a matter of fact — Samuel Thayer, in 1820, wrote, “When Thanksgiving morning came everybody was astir in the house. . . .” — and since the day then was centered on the home and family, a visit to Old Sturbridge Village is a good idea. Just a little more than an hour from Boston, the village re-creates the 1830s, and while the village may not be genuine, every home, farm and building in it is. The Fenno house along the village green came from Canton, just south of Boston; others were packed up from towns throughout New England and moved to this picturesque site.
At Old Sturbridge Village, preparations for Thanksgiving begin today and will continue through Wednesday. Throughout the village, visitors will smell the aroma of fresh breads and pies being prepared on the open hearths of village homes. On Thursday, you can stroll along the village green, visiting the homes there, or down to the farmhouse beyond the water wheel and cider mill to see how families of the 1830s would celebrate the harvest feast. Things have changed considerably since that f irst Thanksgiving — there now are forks on the tables. The Pilgrims used knives, spoons, large napkins and fingers, sharing plates and drinking vessels. And, unlike the Pilgrims, food is now served in courses, not all at once with everyone choosing what he or she wanted first.
A highlight of 19th-century New England would be a church service at the meetinghouse. Old Sturbridge visitors can experience this at 1 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. If you were lucky enough to have made reservations early, you could have your thanksgiving meal at the Bullard Tavern or in one of the nearby inns, such as the Publick House.
Old Sturbridge is one of those places that is always in season, and each season brings its remembrances of a New England past. With the harvest in, villagers are now preparing for winter. Among activities taking place next weekend will be cider making, herb grating and crushing. Adding to the holiday spirit will be performances of period music.
There are some 40 homes and buildings to visit — including a blacksmith shop, store, carding mill, school, sawmill and a bake house. (“Why,” I asked my daughter, “do you want to visit Old Sturbridge Village?” It just didn’t seem like the place a teen-ager would want to bring a pen pal. Her reason? The cookies from the bake house. However, they also had a grand time touring the village. And the cookies were excellent.)
Sturbridge, too, is very accommodating when it comes to a variety of lodgings, from classic inns — the Publick House has Yule Log celebrations on weekends — to resort-style places with indoor pools. And while you’re there, the area is a great place to hunt for antiques, shop at outlet stores, seek out a live Christmas tree to bring home, or even do some good old-fashioned square dancing at the Hayloft Steppers Barn. For the holidays, after Thanksgiving there is Bethlehem in Sturbridge, just beyond Old Sturbridge Village, a miniature re-creation of the Holy Land at the time of Jesus.
If you still have room left after a hearty Thanksgiving meal, you might want to include a weekend night at the Salem Crofs Inn in West Brookfield, where meals are served over the nation’s only known 1700s roasting jack or from its beehive oven, and, depending on the weather, hayrides and sleigh rides are offered on the inn’s 600 acres. The inn was built in 1705 by the grandson of Peregrine White, who was born on the Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor. There’s no escaping those Pilgrims.
Of course, you could go to Virginia to search out that state’s claim, and perhaps experience another era in American history with a stay at Colonial Williamsburg.
Then again, you might want to check out those Texas claims. The El Paso boast was made by a group of history buffs who convinced the Texas Legislature that Don Juan de Onate — who arrived at the Rio Grande near El Paso on April 20, 1598, and 10 days later claimed the land for Spain — declared a feast for that day, with all those gathered to be dressed in their Sunday best, or whatever they did in those days.
To the Pilgrims, Thanksgiving Day was a solemn event — a day of prayer and fasting. Even the first national Thanksgiving, proclaimed by George Washington, was looked on as a somber event. It wasn’t until the turn of this century that the real Thanksgiving — the one we know — took hold, combining the Pilgrims’ celebration, Forefathers’ Day – the day the Pilgrims landed — harvest festivals and even football.
Author(s): Jerry Morris, Globe Staff Date: November 18, 1990 Page: B25 Section: TRAVEL