Thanksgiving Day Prompts Review of Holiday’s Surprising Roots

from coronado to plates of eel, thanksgiving keeps us guessing

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Thanksgiving Day is celebrated in the United States today. Whether we’re basting a turkey, bent over a stovetop of side dishes, giving thanks for what we have, or avoiding a relative all day, Thanksgiving is as much ritual as holiday. It started 80 years before the pilgrims broke bread with American Indians.

Overhead view of a thanksgiving feast with family holding hands
The celebration of Thanksgiving shared with family and friends has deep roots within the history of the United States. Photo By Alexander Raths / Shutterstock

Thanksgiving is a joyous, albeit stressful, holiday. Traditionally, Americans gather with family and friends to eat, drink, and be merry. Turkey is the most usual main course, while mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and other side dishes adorn the table. In fact, toss some green beans in a bit of olive oil with sautéed shallots and minced garlic; you’ll thank me later.

Every American is familiar with the story of the pilgrims from Plymouth, Massachusetts, breaking bread with a local tribe of American Indians. What if some Thanksgiving traditions began before any of those pilgrims were born? In her video series Food, Science, and the Human Body, Dr. Alyssa Crittenden, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, said Thanksgiving has some surprising roots.

The First Thanksgivings

“According to the National Constitution Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan history museum based in Philadelphia, the history of Thanksgiving actually begins in 1541, when Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado held a Thanksgiving feast for his half-starved men during a long journey in what is present-day Texas,” Dr. Crittenden said. “In 1619, another historical meal of thanks occurred in Berkeley Plantation, Virginia, by the initial settlers.

“Thanksgiving meant to take some time to give thanks to God and community.”

The following year, pilgrims moved to Massachusetts, struggling for their first 12 months or so. In 1621 they met an American Indian man we know as Squanto, though his birth name was Tisquantum. Dr. Crittenden said he was a member of the Patuxett band of the Wampanoag who had been kidnapped many years earlier, brought to Europe, and spoke fluent English. When he returned to North America, he found most of his tribe had died of disease, so he stayed with the undernourished Plymouth pilgrims.

“He taught them how to plant Northern Flint corn, which was hardy and would flourish in the climate,” Dr. Crittenden said. “That fall, the pilgrims held a multiday feast to give thanks to God and to the harvest. This tradition was something they brought with them from the old country, but with a new twist—they invited Squanto and the Wampanoag to join them.”

The Spread

According to Dr. Crittenden, this first Thanksgiving feast did include roast turkey, but it also featured roast goose, codfish, lobster, eel, and clams. The Wampanoag brought five deer and shared their venison.

The celebration remained exclusive to the New England area until 1777, when it was celebrated nationwide for the first time to celebrate a military victory during the Revolutionary War. As westward expansion began, Thanksgiving came to new lands. It was made a national holiday by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863.

“Thanksgiving is, by and large, one of the most popular and commonly celebrated holidays in the U.S.,” Dr. Crittenden said. “According to a CNN poll in 2012, it ranks as the second most favorite U.S. holiday behind Christmas. We eat over 46 million turkeys, and eat about an average of 4,000 calories per person as part of this holiday feast.”

Speaking of turkeys, it turns out that tryptophan isn’t directly to blame for all that sleepiness. According to Dr. Crittenden, it’s an amino acid that’s needed to make serotonin, which in turn can make us feel relaxed, calm, and sleepy. Nutrition researchers have determined, however, that it’s more a matter of how much we’ve overstuffed ourselves, in general, that makes us tired.

Seriously, try those green beans.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily