For Pilgrims, Thanksgiving Was a Way of Life

The commemoration we recognize each year came out of a deep view of providence and everyday gratitude to God.

Studying all extant eyewitness accounts of the first Thanksgiving is not difficult. It requires reading just 152 words, written in late 1621 by Plymouth colony statesman Edward Winslow:

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after have 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 amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King 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 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.

The celebration bore marked differences from some traditional portrayals. The 90 Wamponoags present were nearly double the 50 Englishmen still alive after their first grueling winter in Plymouth, down from 102 who arrived on the Mayflower. It probably took place outdoors, in September or October rather than November. They ate more venison and seafood than turkey, berries rather than pumpkin pies.

In some quarters, it has become popular to suggest even deeper differences between traditional American Thanksgiving celebrations and what occurred at Plymouth in 1621. Contrary to the traditional portrayal of families gathered around their tables with heads bowed in prayer, some historians question whether Christian spirituality should be associated …

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