Where and when was it?
A thanksgiving feast was celebrated by the Plymouth colonists less than a year after they had settled in the New World. After a very hard first winter, the summer had brought new hope: bountiful crops. An English-speaking Indian named Squanto (he had lived in England for two years) had shown the settlers how to bury rotting fish beside the seeds as fertilizer. He also taught them to snare small animals, tap maple trees, dig for eels, and plant pumpkins. (Put the pumpkins between the corn hills, he told them. It helps keep down the weeds.)
Three days of feasting and festivities followed the harvest at Plymouth Plantation late in the fall of 1621, sometime between Sept. 21 and Nov. 9. The Pilgrims had celebrated a form of Thanksgiving in England called Harvest Home. Holland, where the Pilgrims stayed before coming to the New World, also had "prayer and thanks" days.
Who was invited?
Fifty settlers, nearly half of them children, hosted the meal. Everyone helped themselves to food over a period of three days. The feast did not proceed from soup to sweets. All the food was served at the same time. The Pilgrims invited the chief of a nearby Indian tribe, Massasoit. He brought 90 of his braves. The work of preparing the feast fell to four Pilgrim women and two teenage girls. Gov. William Bradford sent "four men fowling," and the ducks, geese, and other wild birds they brought back were added to lobsters, eels, cod, oysters, clams, corn, and greens.
Was it the first Thanksgiving?
You decide: A religious celebration of thanks (not a feast) had been held Dec. 14, 1619, at a settlement named Berkeley Hundred along the James River in Virginia. Capt. John Woodleaf declared that the observance would be held every year. But the settlement was wiped out by Indians a few years later. Fourteen years before the Plymouth celebration, settlers led by Capt. John Popham met with Abanaki Indians by the mouth of the Kennebec River in Maine to share food and prayer. But the ceremony was never repeated, and the colonists left for England the next year.
We don't know if the Pilgrims' two dogs (a mastiff and a spaniel) were invited. But they had been involved in planting the corn that spring - too involved, in fact. They kept trying to dig up the fish planted with the corn! The settlers had to tie the dogs' forepaws together and set a night watch against wolves, who were also attracted to the fishy corn crop.
What - no pie?
The two "typical" dishes for a Thanksgiving dinner, turkey and pumpkin pie, were not at this banquet. The "turkies" brought back by Pilgrim hunters were not the turkeys we know today. In the 1600s, "turkey" meant any bird with a featherless head. They probably caught guinea fowls, pheasants, or wild turkeys.
As for pumpkin pie - or bread, for that matter: The Pilgrims had used up all the flour they had brought on the Mayflower. They did serve boiled pumpkins, though. They also boiled corn, then kneaded it and made cakes and skillet bread.
The nine girls and 15 boys may have gathered wild cranberries, which the women would have used in "puddings in the belly" (stuffing). The children may also have helped turn the spits over the open fires and waited on tables. Chief Massasoit also helped by sending his braves out hunting. They returned with five deer.
What else was on the table?
Watercress and leeks, bitter plums and dried berries. But no apple cider, and no milk, butter, or cheese, since cows had not been aboard the Mayflower. There was no celery, gravy, potatoes, or onions. This three-day picnic was served and eaten outdoors on long cloth-covered tables or on the ground. The settlers and guests ate with knives and spoons, but no forks. Thankfully, they had large (three feet square) linen napkins. Instead of dishes, they ate from trenchers (small wooden plates) sometimes shared by two people.
Was there a parade?
They had lots of festivities, including singing and dancing. A modest number of soldiers marched, played drums and bugles, and fired muskets. The 90 braves showed their skill in archery. All competed in foot races and jumping matches.
Legend has it that popcorn was served at the first Thanksgiving dinner. Chief Massasoit's brother, Quadequina, is supposed to have contributed several deerskin bags of already-popped popcorn.