This year we celebrate a special anniversary. In 1621, the Pilgrims of Plymouth had their first feast of thankfulness for the excellent harvest after that first year in their newly established colony. When I was a kid, I was interested in the history of the area where I lived, which was not far from Plymouth. We lived in a very old house, too – I’m guessing the 1770s. It had a huge fireplace and a fat chimney I was sure Santa could easily make it down.
I was, however, very curious about those first settlers in our part of the world. Not far from where I lived was a little path to a rock with a handprint on it. They called it Agawam’s Rock because supposedly a chief by that name had been shot by the colonists and as he died, he fell against that particular rock. You can see the handprint quite clearly and I was a true believer at the ripe old age of seven. The Native American factor was what I was most interested in, and I have felt for a long time that the Wampanoags and especially their leader Massasoit were not as honored as they should have been by their participation in this early gathering.
One year our mother decided the whole family would celebrate Thanksgiving at the Plimoth Plantation, which is the name of this special living museum close to where the Pilgrims originally set foot on dry land. They had hoped to arrive in Virginia, but lucky for us, they landed in Massachusetts. The spelling of the name of this museum is the same as the way William Bradford spelled it–he was a first settler who came on the Mayflower. This plantation, which was founded in 1947, is such fun to visit – in addition to early settler homes made of weathered grey clapboards, huge chimneys, and sometimes thatched roofs, there are fascinating exhibits and people demonstrating the crafts from 400 years ago. Later on, the organization developed a separate native village of Wampanoags which I would have loved to have seen as a child. But we were immersed as we walked the streets of the little settlement and marveled.
There’s so much to view and so much to learn. When you go to this living museum, your ticket will also include a visit to the replica of the Mayflower, which is remarkably small. I was only seven, yet I noticed I was almost as tall as those long-ago grownups. The Thanksgiving celebration is a singular event at the site, and we were very excited to attend. I’ve discovered since that the Plimoth Plantation starts booking for this event in May and it gets rapidly filled up!
The feast was held in a big room with long tables. We were welcomed by someone impersonating Governor William Bradford and were served by people in period costume which added greatly to the magic. Some of the meal hearkened back to that first gathering, including the succotash (which comes from the Narragansett word “msickquatash” meaning a vegetable dish), winter squash, and cranberries – the latter additions thanks to the Wampanoags and their chief Massasoit. The natives also brought deer meat, but there remains a historical question as to whether turkey was actually served at that first celebration. That whole tradition, I found out later, was ascribed to a magazine called Godey’s Ladys’ Book from the 1840s. Their editor, Sarah Josepha Hale, started publishing articles and recipes about the feast and on October 3, 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed it a national holiday.
My young brothers and I were enchanted by this Thanksgiving meal and the whole event. I still vividly recall someone in costume explaining the history of that first gathering. And I delighted in the costumed people who served us the food. Despite the fact that every seat in the room was filled, we still felt we were at a special, perhaps once in a lifetime, event. I recollect that the turkey tasted extra good, and the Succotash and pudding were so yummy. Being sucked back into the mid 1600s was a touchstone for our family for years. Today, when I think of Thanksgiving, I still remember that meal and the tangible atmosphere from all those years ago. It felt like family – we gathered gratefully with strangers, but the laughter and conversation felt like a coming-together of old friend