When I was growing up in that long-ago land a bunch of us remember as grade school, you would have thought the Pilgrims held that first Thanksgiving in true Griswoldian fashion, piling out of the family truckster at grandma’s house, wearing Crayola-colored Indian headdress and Pilgrim hats to feast on Indian corn and wild turkey.
OK, I admit it. I had a far more cynical view of the first Thanksgiving than most, because I was crayon-challenged and did some pretty crappy renditions of a buckle-laced Pilgrim hat to be hung — preferably near the bottom and nearly out of sight — on the front blackboard for all to see.
I mean, how else would all good Crayola-and-construction-paper turkeys (made by the girls in my class) shine if it wasn’t for people like me?
Not my finest hour in learning history, but certainly a good way to get little minds to start looking at our nation and its opening chapter, without a dry lecture no one would have listened to or remembered. My early teachers certainly were hands-on when it came to teaching about American holidays.
Be that as it may, the first Thanksgiving bore little resemblance to my first-grade efforts at turkey-day introduction. It was pretty darned pedestrian, like much of history.
National Geographic and The History Channel thankfully have more realistic teachings on Thanksgiving Day origins.
It was the year 1621, and the Massachusetts Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast, today acknowledged as the first true Thanksgiving celebration, in what soon was to follow — an ever-increasing flow of people sailing from Europe to settle these shores and form the 13 Colonies.
Even though we tend to think Thanksgiving has always been around, such was not the case. Up until the Revolutionary War, colonists really didn’t have that much to be thankful for. They were busy day in and day out just growing food, hauling water and trying to live to middle age.
Life in the colonies was hard, just like everywhere else around the world, outside of the occasional royal palace or the hallowed halls of some lavish estate.
In fact, it was 150 years ago, in the midst of the Civil War, that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving Day to be held each November.
Being thankful in that 1863 cauldron of history meant you were alive, most of your sons and fathers and brothers had not been killed in battle, and that was about it.
But it was in that first brutal winter, which started about this month, after the first 102 Pilgrims had come ashore in 1620, in which most colonists stayed aboard the Mayflower suffering from exposure to the harsh New England winter, scurvy and disease.
Only 44 of those 102 lived to see their first spring 1621. That’s pretty brutal. It’s like heading off to grandma’s house today with a full carload, and only half of you live to eat turkey.
Kind of sobering.
The spring after that first winter, the remaining Pilgrims moved ashore, where they received a visit from an Abenaki Indian, who introduced them to an English-speaking member of the Pawtuxet tribe, who had been kidnapped by an English sea captain and sold into slavery before escaping to London and returning to his American homeland.
How fortuitous for our earliest forbears.
Squanto, as you may remember from your grade-school days, was that English-speaking Indian, who taught the malnourished and disease-wracked Pilgrims how to cultivate corn, draw sap from maple trees, catch fish from fresh-water rivers and streams and avoid poisonous plants.
Helping the new settlers forge an alliance with the local Wampanoag tribe, it allowed the Pilgrims to endure and eventually settle in the New World before they perished.
In November 1621, Gov. William Bradford, elected to lead the Pilgrims after the first governor died, organized a celebratory feast from the colonists’ first successful corn harvest, which included Native American allies and Wampanoag Chief Massasoit.
Of course, it’s doubtful the word “thanksgiving” was uttered at this first feast, which actually lasted three days, but the Wampanoag did bring five deer to share with the Pilgrims.
And, if truth be known, today’s dietitians would have approved. The Mayflower’s sugar supply had run out that fall, and the first meal fell considerably short of today’s over-indulgence, as it didn’t feature pie, cake or other desserts — which we all have fond olfactory memories from our first Thanksgiving walking into grandma’s house.
So, without Squanto, who may have been as much a father to this country as George Washington, it is quite likely there would have been no Thanksgiving Day, nor would the Pilgrims have survived.
Makes me want to dig out the crayons and try my hand again at that headdress.
Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid news.com/historicallyspeaking