Thanksgiving: The Harvest Feast

Thanksgiving: The Harvest Feast
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By Mary Emma Allen

Thanksgiving has played an important role as a traditional harvest feast in the lives of Americans since the days of the Pilgrims. At this time, when the crops were gathered for winter, they gave thanks and acknowledged the many rewards of their labors.
Harvest feasts are not new in the history of man; they've been held for centuries in various areas of the world. Early in October, the early Romans dedicated an annual harvest festival, or Cerelia, to Ceres, their goddess of grains and harvests.

English Traditions In the New World

In England, the harvest holiday was recognized with merrymaking and carnival activities. So, as a matter of course, settlers to the New World, born and raised in this tradition, thought of celebrating their first harvests in their new land in a similar manner.

Debate Over Location of First Thanksgiving

Some doubt has arisen concerning the actual place where the first Thanksgiving in America occurred. Although the Pilgrims are generally credited with starting this holiday to celebrate their first year's stay and first harvest, some historians are unwilling to place the scene of the first festivities at Plymouth Rock.

These doubters put its origin in Virginia, along the James River, where they say those colonists feasted on harvest gifts in 1619. Others place the first celebration on the island of Monhegan, just off the coast of Maine, where a group of settlers supposedly landed in 1619.

Plymouth Thanksgiving Better Known

However, more is known about the feast at Plymouth and the accepted version of the Thanksgiving story that these stalwart settlers began our Thanksgiving tradition in the autumn of 1621.

To this harvest feast, the Pilgrims gave religious meaning by holding services and offering prayers of gratitude for their new homes, their religious freedom, the friendly Indians, and their crops, which, though meager, would furnish them with food for the ap-proaching cold months.

The Natives Invited

In recognition of his friendship, Massasoit was invited and appeared with 90 of his braves painted in festive manner and bearing gifts of venison and various foods from field and woodland.

For three days, Pilgrims and Native Americans feasted on fare such as deer, duck, wild turkey, clams, oysters, fish, "Injun" bread, corn, beans, peas, squash and pumpkin baked under the ground in pits, with wild cranberries, plums, and nuts for dessert.

Juice from the wild grape was a likely beverage, and games of skill between Pilgrim and natives filled the hours when the feasting abated.

Thanksgiving Becomes a Tradition

This custom of an annual Thanksgiving feast was repeated year after year and became a tradition throughout the various colonies as more settlers migrated to this colonial land.

As crops became more diversified, thanksgiving menus were more elaborate. Turkey remained the traditional meat, but vegetables now included onions, turnips, white and sweet potatoes. Desserts encompassed a range of pies from mince, first made with dried cherries to pumpkin, squash and apple; puddings of cranberry or corn meal or dried plums were common.

Also, regional favorites evolved which gave the Thanksgiving menu a distinctive flavor typical of North, South, Midwest, or West, wherever one happened to be dining. (c)2000 Mary Emma Allen

About the author

Mary Emma Allen, who lives in New Hampshire, often researches and writes about historical topics. She's also a children's author. Visit her web site:;


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About The Author

Cindy Sanchez is the mother of four children who love to bake as much as she does! She is also the owner and editor of

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