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Friday, November 20, 2009

Thanksgiving Myths and Memories

Thanksgiving  is  a family affair for most area families with traditional
foods such as turkey, ham and sweet potatoes. It is a chance for a multi-generational sharing of thankfulness for all we enjoy.

"The First Thanksgiving" (1914) by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1850-1936) helps to perpetuate the belief that the Pilgrims celebrated the original American thanksgiving in 1621.
This c 1911 Thanksgiving greeting card was typical of many holiday post cards published in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Published in the Journal-Opinion, November 24, 2009

They were a group of hard-pressed colonists facing the rigors of the New World. Faith in a providing and protecting God caused them to celebrate with thanksgiving the blessings they felt had been provided. The image that immediately comes to mind with this description is of the traditional Pilgrim Thanksgiving at Plymouth in 1621.

However, in New Mexico there are those who believe this describes colonizing families led by Don Juan de Onate who reached the banks of the Rio Grande and celebrated by giving thanks to God in April 1598. Berkeley, Virginia residents believe that the honor for the first American thanksgiving belongs to them.

On December 4, 1619 a group of newly-arrived English colonists under Capt. John Woodlief proclaimed the following: “Wee ordain that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for plantacons in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

All of these observances are merely continuations of festivals celebrated from very ancient times. Early hunters and gatherers connected continued success with worship of their deities. Ancient civilizations such as the Hebrews, Greeks and Romans made these festivals significant annual events.

Native Americans celebrated in a similar way prior to the arrival of European colonists. Certainly the English settlers were familiar with the age-old rural celebration of ingathering called Harvest Home. Held on the last day of the harvest, this traditional festival of ingathering included feasting, song and dance.

The Thanksgiving story my grandchildren will hear in school this November will most likely include Pilgrims and their neighbors, the Wampanoag. That story, so familiar to most Americans, is a mixture of fact and myth. What is known is that after a difficult first year in which more than half of the Pilgrims died, the company had gathered a reasonably good harvest. They were also amazed by the natural bounty of the forests and sea around them. A hunting party returned with an abundant take, probably including wild turkey. Governor William Bradford called for a harvest festival.

Massasoit, a leader among the Wampanoag, along with a large party of his people, arrived to join the English in three days of feasting and entertainment. Fall festivals of this sort were part of the fixed rhythm of their culture. They brought with them 5 deer as a gift. This sharing was a way to show friendship and respect. That was a relationship that continued until the 1630’s when war broke out between the ever-expanding colonial settlements and the Native Americans.

Most of the foods Americans traditionally eat at Thanksgiving were probably not on the menu in 1621. This celebration, according to Giving Thanks, by Kathleen Curtin et al, “occurred sometime between September 21 and November 9.” Having all the trappings of the Harvest Home observance, this was not truly a day of thanksgiving. That, in the English tradition, was a solemn day of prayer, worship and often fasting.

My 8th great-grandfather, 13-year old Joseph Rogers, was at that celebration. He and his father, Thomas Rogers were among those “planters” who came on the Mayflower. His father died during the first winter and young Rogers went to live in the household of Governor Bradford. He would have joined in the games and partaken of the venison, wild turkey, fish, breads and sweets along with beer and water.

Over the next century and a half, colonial thanksgiving days were held from time to time, both in recognition of special blessings and, “more general expressions of gratitude for prosperity and health.” Governors and later Presidents would declare official thanksgiving observances. Worship was the main event of these days, although food or fasting played an important role.

Increasingly, in the early19th century, the so-called Pilgrims’ First Thanksgiving became attached to a fall family festival that included distinctly American foods. Many of the dishes that are served today became standard fare. These include stuffed turkey or chicken, gravy, cranberry sauce and a vast array of vegetables, breads and desserts. Molasses-based pumpkin pie and Indian pudding were staples of the day.

Rev. Grant Powers, one of the earliest local historians, relates how in one of the earlier years, “the proclamation of Thanksgiving did not reach Newbury till after the appointed day had passed. The people however, decided to keep the feast, but it was discovered that there was no molasses in the settlement. A supply being expected from Charlestown, the day was postponed to await its arrival, but, after waiting several weeks, the desired article having not appeared, Thanksgiving was kept without it.”

In 1863 President Lincoln established the last Thursday of November as an annual national Thanksgiving holiday. This was largely a result of the lobbying by New Hampshire-born Sarah Buell Hale, editor of the women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book. She wanted to extend the New England holiday to the rest of the nation. While Lincoln may have felt that such a holiday would serve the war-torn nation, Southerners rejected the declared day for one of their own.

Jessie Baldwin’s brief history of Post Mills describes Thanksgivings as celebrated a century ago. It was a day when family members, “gathered at the family homestead.”

Both she and Suzanna Taplin, whose recollections are included in the Corinth history, tell of pies being baked and frozen in cold rooms. Taplin, “told of her aunt making 100 pies, 25 to 30 of mincemeat, one dozen apple and the others pumpkin, squash, blackberry and custard. Freezing improved the flavor, especially of mince pie.”

Articles in Bradford’s The United Opinion reflect the changing observances connected with Thanksgiving. In the closing years of the 19th century there were articles that included the Governor’s annual Thanksgiving proclamation, notices of church services and poems and articles connecting the celebration to its mythical Pilgrim roots. The close of the 8-week fall term at local schools was also announced.

There were almost no ads for Thanksgiving supplies. One did appear on November 23, 1888 as a small notice that announced that Bradford’s Bailey’s Store has “oranges, oysters and sage cheese, fine cooking raisins and pure spices for Thanksgiving.” An article described a Thanksgiving Dinner served in the French style reflected the attempts by urban Victorians to gentrify the meal. One suspects it had little impact on country homesteads.

Some communities had Thanksgiving pageants and dances. In 1891 Bradford’s Village Hall held an afternoon of entertainment featuring Thomas Edison’s new “wonderful Phonograph.” It played to an overflow audience.

Thanksgivings in the 1920s and 30s reflected the prosperity and depression of those years. Two years after the disastrous flood of 1927, Vermont’s Governor John Weeks’ proclamation cited the abundant harvest, the rewards of industry, freedom from disease and pestilence as well as peace among the nations and the swift recovery from disaster as reasons for being thankful.

But five years into the Depression, Governor Wilson included in his message that, “The past year has not brought the prosperity for which we had hoped. We have been beset by trials of many kinds.” He called on Vermonters to face their problems, “with a confidence born of the experiences of the past.” Roland Moore of Woodsville recalls that Thanksgivings for his small family in those Depression years were sparse.

During World War II, many were unable to return home and food was rationed. The United Opinion still saw reason to observe the spirit of Thanksgiving. Its columnists cited among the reasons for thankfulness the many rights enjoyed by Americans and denied to people in conquered lands. Additionally, they added, “We are able to carry the war back to the enemy, and carry it back hard and furiously to him wherever he is.” One gets the impression that Americans are more thankful for what they have when they have less or are beset by problems.

Editions in the post-war years reflected the renewed prosperity and availability of food. Additionally, as hunting season overlapped the celebration, the paper featured the resulting deer count as front page news. For those who wanted to eat out, the Bradford Inn offered, in 1949, a complete Thanksgiving Dinner for $1.50. Post-holiday editions featured news of numerous family gatherings.

In those years my family spent the holiday at my grandmother’s in Brattleboro. My 90-year-old great grandmother’s contribution to the dinner was Indian pudding made with stone-ground corn meal. I didn’t appreciate it as much then as I would now. After the traditional mid-day meal my brothers and I got to go to the Paramount for a movie before the long and sleepy ride back up Route 5 to Orford.

In some of the larger communities, football games became a tradition. Barbara Condict of Post Mills, who grew up in Leominister, Massachusetts, remembers both the traditional game with Fitchburg and the touch football games in the family’s yard. Most people gathered with family for the meal of comfort foods, particular to their traditions.

For Betty Wheeler Emerson of West Newbury it was turkey and dressing along with steamed puddings at her grandparents’ farm in Haverhill. For Mary Metcalf Munn who grew up on Taplin Hill, it was the gathering at the farm that had been in her family for four generations. Dinner at that household was placed on hold until the men returned from hunting.

During my four decades of teaching high school students in Bradford, I annually closed the classes prior to the Thanksgiving break with the same set of questions. How many will gather with you for dinner tomorrow? Can you list exactly what will be served and by whom? What is the one dish you really enjoy and the one that few seem to eat? If your family has a children’s table, what is the manner in which one becomes eligible to sit at the adult table?

Even as football replaced hunting and the holiday bird was sometimes deep-fried, the results of this informal survey were predictable. Similarities were enhanced by family variation. Boiled onions and turnip could not hold up against turkey, stuffing, apple pie or mixed nuts. The children’s table was often more fun than the grownups’ table especially when it was next to the television for parade or football viewing. Besides, only some wanted to hear old Uncle So-and-so tell the same stories year after year.

If there were members of the extended Kingsbury-Maxwell family of Bradford they would claim the record for participants. That was broken only one time by a family reunion in Corinth that numbered nearly 150 and was held in the old academy building.

I was lucky to have married a wife who loved to cook for Thanksgiving, and she brought to our holiday table the extended Martin family. With our daughters’ families we often number up to 40 diners. One year we included two German students from Dartmouth. They were astounded that the meal that had taken days to prepare could be wolfed down in less than 30 minutes. In Europe, they remarked, it would have been a 3-hour meal, with each course relished in turn.

While America is not the only nation that celebrates thanksgiving, it does tell us a lot about America as a nation. It reflects the level of our religious beliefs, our prosperity, the respect for both traditions and change, our mobility and freedom to travel, the importance of commercialism, the changing divisions of labor, our intergenerational relations and how important eating, sports and families are to us.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. The Bradford Game Supper for which my wife and I make gingerbread and rolls for many years was behind us. The overshadowing Christmas season demands our attention. I love the smell of the kitchen, the conversation of family members, the way in which children change from year to year, the traditions and the food.

I join those who hold that one of the pleasures of Thanksgiving is the “pickings”, those leftovers best enjoyed by those who host. For me one of the great comforts of this holiday of memories is a cold turkey sandwich on homemade bread, a cold glass of milk and a piece of left over pie in the early twilight of Thanksgiving Day. All this gives more than ample cause for giving thanks.