How Is Thanksgiving Now Different From the First Thanksgiving?

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In 1621, the Colonial Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians came together to eat a meal in the spirit of thankfulness, an event which is regarded as the origin of the Thanksgiving holiday. Despite this, some key differences exist between the first Thanksgiving dinner and today's Thanksgiving traditions.

Every year on Thanksgiving, families and friends gather together to eat a traditional meal. Key staples of today’s Thanksgiving meal include turkey with stuffing, ham, mashed potatoes, squash, cranberry sauce, rolls, sweet potatoes, creamed corn, candied yams, gravy, green bean casserole, and maple glazed carrots, among other dishes. Thanksgiving dessert often consists of either pumpkin pie or pumpkin cheesecake, pecan pie, or apple pie. While this is the meal that is considered traditional now, attendees of the first Thanksgiving experienced a very different menu.

Historians believe that at the first Thanksgiving celebration in 1621, the Pilgrim Colonists and the Wampanoag Indians ate a meal consisting of deer meat, roasted turkey, duck, goose, fish, and lobster. Also believed to be on the menu were dried fruit, squash, pumpkin, cranberry sauce, and dried Indian maize, or corn. The meat present at the first Thanksgiving was spiced with cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and dried fruit. For dessert they likely ate a type of wheat pudding.

Some elements of this menu, such as squash, pumpkin, and cranberry sauce, appear to be similar to the Thanksgiving meal eaten today. However, there are a few notable differences. The turkey at the first Thanksgiving was most likely roasted, while Thanksgiving turkey today is usually baked. Because there was very little sugar left over from the Colonial Pilgrims’ journey on the Mayflower to Plymouth, there were likely very few desserts served at the first Thanksgiving.

Despite the current name of the holiday, the original feast in 1621 was not called Thanksgiving, as far as historians can tell. The event was also not originally an annual tradition. After the first feast, there is no evidence that it was celebrated again within the next ten years. Despite this, the United States credits the establishment of Thanksgiving to the celebration in 1621, as it symbolizes both the idea of social unification and the importance of giving thanks.

Today, Thanksgiving dinner takes place in many households sometime in the afternoon on the fourth Thursday of November, and generally lasts for a few hours. This is another point of contrast between present day Thanksgiving and the first Thanksgiving. The celebration in 1621 lasted for a total of three days, according to primary accounts that have survived from the event. This is because the Wampanoag tribe that attended had to travel on foot for two days to reach the Pilgrims. Not only was the first Thanksgiving a three day feast, but the attendees also celebrated by playing games throughout the event.