The Real Story Behind Thanksgiving

What exactly was the first Thanksgiving like? Historian Nick Bunker sifts through the myths and says it was a mixture of Native American ritual, Christianity, and English patriotism.

11.24.10 10:36 PM ET

You will find few episodes in American history more weather-beaten than the origins of Thanksgiving. Tidal waves of scholarship have broken over Plymouth Rock, leaving behind little but ambiguity. Understandably, historians yearn to strip away the myths that conceal the realities of early New England. But when interpretations multiply, they render lay people skeptical about scholarship in general. The laity simply ignore the historians. They step around their arguments, like sea-weed on a Massachusetts beach.

It should not have to be that way, and certainly not in the case of Thanksgiving. Most Americans believe that when they sit down to dinner, they will commemorate an event that occurred in the Plymouth Colony, after the corn harvest of 1621. Probably in October, the Pilgrims met their Wampanoag neighbors for three days of feasting on wildfowl and venison. Nobody can seriously doubt that the event took place. We should be able to talk about it in language that is moving without being clichéd, historically accurate without being pedantic, and nuanced without being esoteric. But search for scholarly guidance, and you will come away with far more questions than answers.

[The Pilgrims] said Thanksgiving psalms like Jews, sometimes they fasted and sometimes they ate and drank, and like their British cousins they puffed themselves up with national pride.

Did the Pilgrims re-enact an English harvest festival, alcoholic and semi-pagan? Or was the gathering religious? Was it the same as a ceremony they held two years later, a day of pious gratitude for a fine crop? Alternatively, perhaps the first Thanksgiving was a Wampanoag idea, a nickommo. This was a Native American ritual party, held to avert disease, or to celebrate good hunting. Either way, did it really have anything to do with later days of Thanksgiving proclaimed in colonial New England? Often they involved fasting rather than feasting, and sometimes they mainly celebrated British victories in battles against the French.

Up to a point, questions such as these arise because the Pilgrims said so little about that first venison dinner in 1621. In this case, their narrator was Edward Winslow. Usually a diligent observer, nonetheless Winslow skimmed over the episode in two sentences. By leaving so much unspoken, he created a gap that historians have filled with speculation.

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Can we do better than that? Certainly we can. Terse though he was, Winslow tells us that 90 Wampanoags took part. So the English settlers definitely shared in a Native American nickommo, whatever else it may have been. We can also restore the meaning of early Thanksgivings in New England by coming at it from another angle, equally authentic. We find it in Judaism and the Hebrew scriptures.

If you were English, and you wished to express gratitude to God, you would turn to one majestic Biblical text before any other. It speaks about the wilderness of the Sinai, about danger and deliverance, about the journey of the Israelites across the Red Sea, and about the duty to give thanks when the exodus is complete. The text is Psalm 107. In the reign of Elizabeth I, when the realm survived a plot, a plague, or the Spanish Armada, her subjects went to church and gave thanks to the Almighty, using the same psalm: “ We will offer unto him the sacrifice of Thanksgiving: and tell out his works with gladness.

So at Provincetown, when the Mayflower first dropped anchor in 1620, the Pilgrims did likewise. For them, the psalm possessed a still deeper resonance. Keen scholars of Hebrew, which they saw as the original language of God, the Pilgrims knew that Psalm 107 was the source of the Jewish thanksgiving prayer, the birkat ha-gomel. They owned books by an English scholar, Henry Ainsworth, who used the Jewish philosopher Maimonides to show that this was so. The birkat ha-gomel was the prayer that every devout Jew should say, upon safe arrival after a dangerous voyage. The Pilgrims said it too.

And so in New England the Pilgrims took a variety of sources, and over time they blended them together to create their early Thanksgivings. Their successors did the same. They said Thanksgiving psalms like Jews, sometimes they fasted and sometimes they ate and drank, and like their British cousins they puffed themselves up with national pride. Centuries later, Americans ended up with a hybrid of Elizabethan patriotism, Algonquian fun, and a dash of non-denominational piety. In other words: the modern Thanksgiving. All you need add is Psalm 107, to make the event sublime.

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Nick Bunker has worked as an investment banker, principally with the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, as an investigative reporter for the Liverpool Echo, and as a writer for the Financial Times. He attended King’s College, Cambridge, and Columbia University. He now lives in the shadow of Lincoln Cathedral, not far from the villages where the leaders of the Plymouth Colony were born.