This article originally ran in November, 2001.
I'm sure Thanksgiving Day church services are lovely, but I have to admit that I've never been to one. In my family, Thanksgiving means watching parades and football games, cooking, eating, and maybe playing a few games of pinochle. Aside from the pre-dinner prayer, it's not an overtly religious celebration.
Neither was the so-called "First Thanksgiving" in 1621.
The Separatists (only much later known as "Pilgrims") who founded Plymouth Colony in 1620 disdained most holidays. In fact, they recognized only three: the weekly Sabbath, the Day of Humiliation and Fasting, and the Day of Thanksgiving and Praise. The latter two were not set on the calendar but could be proclaimed in response to God's perceived disfavor or favor. Because colonial life was so bound to the growing cycle, though, fast days were most often called in the spring, when there wasn't much to eat anyway, while feast days often accompanied the fall harvest. Both observances occurred on weekdays-usually the day of special sermons known as Lecture Day, which was Thursday in Massachusetts.
But the famous feast shared by about 50 colonists and 90 Wampanoag Indians was not an official Day of Thanksgiving. In the only surviving firsthand account of the meal, Edward Winslow describes it this way:
"Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after 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, among other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with ...1