Observance of holiday changing

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 27, 2003

For many people, Thanksgiving Day conjures up images of nuclear families sitting down to a table groaning with a stuffed turkey, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie.

But an Ohio University Southern professor said early observances of the holiday bear very little resemblance to the way we celebrate it today.

Robert Leith, professor of History at OUS, said many of the things we presume started years ago with the early settlers actually became entrenched in our culture and our psyche much later.

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Although there were earlier recorded instances of days set aside for Thanksgiving, the Thanksgiving observance that is usually credited with being the forerunner to our modern holiday is the three-day Thanksgiving feast the Pilgrims shared with members of the Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans took place in October 1621.

While we might like to think that the Indians were invited as a show of friendship and brotherly love, it was more likely the pilgrims had more practical reasons for extending that invitation.The Native Americans were invited for business reasons, Leith said.

And, perhaps, the pilgrims were not expecting quite so many of them to show up. Ninety Native Americans came to the Thanksgiving dinner. All of them men.

"Massasoit, the chief, looks around, and he sees there's not enough food for all these people for three days, so he sends out his braves to get more food," Leith explained.

That Thanksgiving dinner probably included venison, geese and ducks, possibly some turkey that the natives brought with them.

There were no heaving bowls of mashed potatoes."Some people thought they were poisonous," Leith explained. "Growing them had not yet been introduced in Massachusetts."

There was no gravy, either, nor apples and oranges or stuffing. And no ham. Leith explained that pigs were not brought over on the Mayflower.

The Pilgrim-Indian event probably included fish, corn cakes, turnips, plums and berries and wine made from wild grapes - food that could be secured by a trip through the woods as opposed to a stroll through the supermarket.

Now what about that pumpkin pie? Leith said there was none at that feast shared between Indian and Pilgrim. For one thing, there was no sugar or molasses to sweeten the pumpkin with. Pumpkin may have been used, however, as a kind of pudding.

Never mind the idea of Mom, Dad and the kids sitting down with the grandparents at those early observances. Leith said it didn't happen quite that way.

"It was a low table with chairs, and the white males sat there. The women and children stood behind them and brought the food to the table. The men ate first," Leith said. "The Indians sat on the ground with their legs crossed."

Leith said one ingredient that was evident at that early Thanksgiving table was genuine gratitude. The Pilgrims had suffered on that 60-plus day voyage to the New World. The Mayflower was hardly a luxury liner, and the Pilgrims arrived in late fall - no time to plant a crop. More than half of the people who made the journey died that first winter.

Indians, led by Squanto, of the Pawtuxett tribe, taught the newcomers basic survival skills.

"He really was the savior of New Plymouth," Leith said. "He showed them how to grow corn, and they had a bountiful crop that first year. He showed them how to fertilize. He gave them for getting food and security in what he taught them."

Leith said the Pilgrims meant that first Thanksgiving they celebrated to be one of soul searching, and reflection on God's goodness. Religious services were as much a part of that first Thanksgiving as was the food.

"These were religious observances to God," Leith said. "They were meant to contemplate on blessings and give thanks to God for them."