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Posted at 2:19 PM ET, 11/24/2010

Why we don't eat deer for Thanksgiving (the Pilgrims did)

By Valerie Strauss

Does this sound familiar?

In 1621, Pilgrims, dressed in black and white with buckles on their shoes, held a feast in Plymouth Colony to celebrate their first harvest. They invited Wampanoag Indians, and everyone enjoyed turkey and pumpkin pie.

Probably, but we don't know for sure.

Historians, including those at Plimoth Plantation, a living museum in Plymouth, Mass., say that they do know there was a feast that year shared by the colonists and Wampanoag Indians. Squanto, who had learned English, served as translator.

But it wasn’t until the 1800s that Thanksgiving became an annual holiday and that turkey became the staple of the Thanksgiving holiday meal.

At the 1621 feast, the one historical account of the actual dinner says venison was served and some sort of fowl, but it doesn’t specifically say turkey, though colonists were accustomed to eating it, and another account of the first harvest mentioned wild turkey.

Pumpkin was available, but it is not likely the colonists whipped up a pie; sweet potatoes were unknown to the colonists, and cranberries may have been served but not as a sauce or relish.

The Pilgrims, incidentally, did not dress every day in black and white and didn’t have buckles on their shoes.

As for the feast being the first Thanksgiving, nobody at the time thought of it as the start of a new tradition, and there had been similar gatherings elsewhere earlier.

Historians know there was another feast in the colony in 1623 -- but it was held earlier in the year. Different colonies celebrated their own days of thanksgiving during the year.

So why do we eat turkey?

According to Karin Goldstein, curator of original collections at Plimoth Plantation, it wasn’t until 1841 when the Pilgrims, the Wampanoag and Thanksgiving were first linked.

That’s when historian Alexander Young rediscovered Edward Winslow’s account of the 1621 harvest celebration, written that same year as part of the text of a letter to a friend in England (which was published in 1622).

“Young isolated the description of the harvest celebration, and identified it as the precedent for the New England Thanksgiving,” she wrote.

But for the Thanksgiving holiday recognized today, we have 19th century author and magazine editor named Sarah Josepha Hale to thank for that.

Hale had read about the 1621 feast and decided to use it as a model for an annual holiday. She published in the popular Godey’s Lady’s Book recipes for turkey and stuffing and pumpkin pie and started traditions that had nothing to do with the colonists. She successfully lobbied President Abraham Lincoln, who in 1863 agreed to declare Thanksgiving an annual holiday celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November every year.

President George Washington had in 1789 made Thursday, Nov. 26, a Thanksgiving holiday, but it took Lincoln to make it an annual holiday in November; there had been some thought of moving it to August, a suggestion that Hale fought against.

And about the annual presidential turkey pardon, well, that tradition goes all the way back to .... 1989, when President George H.W. Bush officially pardoned the first one. President Obama pardoned two California turkeys this year, named Alice and Cider, saying, "It feels pretty good to stop at least one shellacking this November."

You may have heard that the tradition has roots in the Lincoln White House. According to a perhaps apocryphal story, in 1863, Lincoln’s 10-year-old son, Tad, supposedly became fond of a turkey given to the family for a holiday feast. Tad named the turkey Jack and begged his dad to save the animal. Lincoln did.

The only problem with that as a Thanksgiving story is that Tad’s plea was to save the Christmas turkey!

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By Valerie Strauss  | November 24, 2010; 2:19 PM ET
Categories:  History  | Tags:  abraham lincoln and thanksgiving, colonists thanksgiving, george washington and thanksgiving, ha, history of thanksgiving, pardon and turkey, pilgrims, plymouth colony, presidential pardon, presidential turkey, squanto, thanksgiving, thanksgiving dinner, the first thanksgiving, turkey, wampanoag indians, when was the first thanksgiving?  
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Next: The first Thanksgiving proclamation, by George Washington


I am thankful to live in a country where we can agree to disagree, share with those who are without during this recession and embrace our faith without losing our lives. To live long enough to experience an African-American president, technology access for the most disenfranchised and friends to share my dreams, hopes, concerns and a meal today - I can't say more than God is good and his mercy endureth forever.

Posted by: AdmitGuru84 | November 25, 2010 9:01 AM | Report abuse

Remember Turque's article last week about roast teacher for Thanksgiving?

Posted by: jlp19 | November 26, 2010 11:15 AM | Report abuse

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