The real Thanksgiving unveiled at Plimoth Plantation

History Channel's holiday documentary premiers in Plymouth


   Moviegoers gather at Plimoth Plantation this past Thursday before the premier of the documentary The Real Story of  Thanksgiving. Photo by Judy Keenan.

By Judy Keenan

The Real History of Thanksgiving premiered at Plimoth Plantation on November 18th and audience members were given Wampanoag trail mix (walnuts, dried Indian corn, pumpkin seeds, dried blueberries and dried cranberries) to munch as they watched the film. According to Ellie Donovan, the Executive Director at Plimoth Plantation, Thanksgiving is for many the "iconic symbol of faith and friendship".  Others have condensed  it to: family, friends, food, floats and football.  The film explores the history of the national holiday, debunks the myths, and offers interesting facts in a well researched and engaging presentation.

The only real facts about Thanksgiving were contained in 152 words written by Edward Winslow, one of the original Pilgrims, in an account of 1621. After a bountiful harvest Governor Bradford called for a feast to celebrate their survival and sent four men fowling. Here is the entry from Winslow:       

"They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help besides, served the Company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their great king, Massasoit with some 90 men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted. And they went out and killed five deer which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our Governor and upon the Captain."

Filmmakers Luke Ellis and Matt Hickey of Workaholic Productions. Photo by Judy Keenan.

So we learn that the Indians were drop-in guests, not invited guests and they probably came because the gunshots fired by the Pilgrims made them curious or, even, nervous.  But when they saw the nature of the celebrations they brought venison to share and everyone celebrated.  Was there turkey?  It’s possible since there were wild turkeys in the area just as there are now.  They could have also eaten duck or pheasant.  Tom Turkey could have been Donald Duck.  What foods they had may have included fish, other fowl, pumpkin and corn.  It definitely did not include cranberry sauce, pies, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes or lobsters which were reputed to be large and too tough to chew. Winslow’s letter account was lost for over two hundred years.

The origin of a day of Thanksgiving has some controversy.  Both the Canadians and the Spanish in Florida lay claim to an earlier day of thanksgiving.  In Canada, Martin Frobisher, an explorer, returned safely after searching for a Northwest Passage and held a celebration of homecoming in Newfoundland in 1587.  And the Spanish in Florida celebrated a day of Thanksgiving on September the 8th in 1562.

An American day of Thanksgiving was proclaimed by George Washington in 1789 to express gratitude for ratification of the Constitution and the end of the war.  It was a onetime event and did not reappear as a national holiday until the efforts of Sara Josepha Hale started in 1827. Sara was a writer and editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book magazine and the author of the nursery rhyme, Mary Had a Little Lamb.  She championed a national day of Thanksgiving for over two decades before Abraham Lincoln ordered a national day of celebration in the throes of the Civil War in 1863.  That date too was a onetime event and a day of Thanksgiving was celebrated primarily in the Northeast for many years before it finally became a national holiday by an act of Congress in 1941.

There are many fascinating facts in this documentary produced by Matthew Hickey, a Hingham native who grew up with Plimoth Plantation only a short distance away and his partner, Luke Ellis, at Workaholic Productions.  It is very interesting to learn about the first Thanksgiving football game and the routine release of the giant balloons in the Macy's parade and their transformation into rubber for the war effort in 1942.  The evocative and emotional family connection to the holiday is poignantly expressed by a Viet Nam War vet who relates the story of helicopters bringing in full turkey dinners and a large satellite unit which allowed the soldiers to call home, many waiting on line for as long as two hours to make that phone call.  He says it was the best Thanksgiving he ever had.

The Real History of Thanksgiving documentary will be shown on Monday, November 22 and Wednesday, November 24th on the History Channel.   It is an enjoyable show for all ages and it should be in the mix with other viewing traditions like Charlie Brown’s Thanksgiving and professional football

It may inspire you to take  a moment when it is finished to think about your best Thanksgiving.   Happy Holiday.

Editor's note: If you've never been to Plimoth Plantation, make this the year you go. Just a short drive over the bridge, you'll be transported back to 17th Century Colonial America. For something extra special, check out their Thanksgiving buffet dinner.

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