How do Thanksgiving traditions come to be?

Varick Chittenden

As Stephen Colbert says, “Thanksgiving is a magical time of year when families across the country join together to raise America’s obesity statistics. Personally, I love Thanksgiving traditions: watching football, making pumpkin pie, and saying the magic phrase that sends your aunt storming out of the dining room to sit in her car.”

According to Wikipedia — that all-knowing source of knowledge these days — modern Thanksgiving, which may be the most tradition-filled of any American holiday, began this way:

“The event that some Americans commonly call the ‘First Thanksgiving’ was celebrated by the Pilgrims [in the fall of 1621] to give thanks to God for guiding them safely to the New World. The first Thanksgiving feast lasted three days, providing enough food for 53 Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans. The feast consisted of fish (cod, eel and bass) and shellfish (clams, lobster and mussels), wild fowl (ducks, geese, swans, and turkey), venison, berries and fruit, vegetables (peas, pumpkin, beetroot and possibly wild or cultivated onion), harvest grains (barley and wheat), and the Three Sisters: beans, dried Indian maize or corn, and squash. The New England colonists were accustomed to regularly celebrating “thanksgivings” — days of prayer thanking God for blessings such as military victory or the end of a drought.”

Actually, historians tell us that the first Thanksgiving was not in Plymouth after all. It was at Berkeley Plantation near Jamestown, Va., in 1519, when colonists also were grateful for a great harvest. But, not so fast. Others insist it was 50 years before either of those, when Pedro Menendez de Aviles came ashore with nearly a thousand sailors and civilians to a grassy spot on the Matanzas River in north Florida near the future St. Augustine, to celebrate the first Christian Mass in America. A great meal followed and thanks were offered to their God.

As a folklorist, I’m often interested in the context of human events, the big picture. Besides the what that happened, I want to know about the who, where, when, why and how. Large celebrations — festivals — almost always include food and meals. Think of Christmas, Easter, Passover, Mother’s Day and the Fourth of July, for instance. But Thanksgiving is the one that’s about food and lots of it.

For many families, the traditions are very predictable, almost set in stone. All of the family gathers at least once in the day or weekend. You go to Grandma’s house as long as you can because that is home. Everybody brings food and family members have their specialties. The menu is fixed: turkey and all the trimmings, mashed and sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, other vegetables — if you’re lucky, from someone’s own garden — cranberry sauce (a discussion inevitably occurs over homemade versus canned) and desserts, pies, especially pumpkin, pecan, apple or sweet potato. There can be variations, too. Vegetarians and vegans may have a say in a modern menu; some families will add familiar ethnic choices from their own childhoods: lasagna or manicotti, kielbasa, collard greens, noodle pudding, falafel or egg rolls, for instance. Dare I say it, eating to excess is a long-standing tradition for celebrations. It’s a time of license, ignoring the rules, so a second serving of turkey or pie is surely allowed. You wouldn’t want to offend the cooks.

[Editor’s note: This is a truncated version of this story. For the full version, please see NNY Living in print or subscribe.]

Varick Chittenden is senior folklorist and director of special projects for Traditional Arts in Upstate New York and Professor Emeritus of Humanities at SUNY Canton. A version of this column previously appeared in Voices: A Journal of New York Folklore. Reprinted with permission of the New York Folklore Society.