Karim Tiro, assistant professor of history and authority on early and native Americans and the Thanksgiving holiday
Q: What was the significance of Thanksgiving?
A: Few people realize that it was Lincoln who declared Thanksgiving a national holiday. The fact that Lincoln did this in the middle of the Civil War gives us a hint of its meaning. It was supposed to be a day of penitence, reflection and thanks for national survival. After the war, it continued as a day to give thanks for blessings in general.
Q: What was the relationship between the Pilgrims and native Americans before and after the first Thanksgiving?
A: It was fairly positive in the short term. Both sides had things the other wanted. The natives were interested in English metal goods—particularly kettles, knives and guns—which they traded for furs and food. Relations went downhill after 1630 when other English settlers, the Puritans, began arriving in large numbers. Then the real competition for land began. The Wampanoags were routed by the English colonists in 1676 in an incredibly bloody conflict called King Philip’s War.
Q: Why is it still one of the biggest holidays of the year today?
A: Location, location, location…on the calendar. Most cultures do something to mark the harvest and the tilt into winter. Lincoln had also decreed a Thanksgiving in August. Needless to say, that went nowhere.
Q: What were some rituals or occurrences at the first Thanksgiving besides eating food, and were there any unusual foods prepared at the first Thanksgiving?
A: The Pilgrim-Wampanoag Thanksgiving of 1621 was pretty informal. It wasn’t a sit-down affair. It took place over three or four days. Since both the Pilgrims and the natives were fond of speech-making, I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a lot of that. In addition, there were games of skill and chance. All in all, it was neither a family-centered nor religious event, so the food-and-football part of our tradition comes pretty close to capturing the spirit of the occasion.
In 1621, they ate venison supplied by Wampanoag Indian hunters. There were also several varieties of wild fowl, corn, dried fruit, lobster and eel. It’s quite possible there was no turkey at all.
It’s ironic that the 1621 Thanksgiving became the model for the holiday because it doesn’t really reflect Lincoln’s more sober sentiments. That’s not Lincoln’s fault, though; the holiday was not linked to the 1621 event until the late nineteenth century, when gluttony was quite the fashion.