Most of us know what Thanksgiving is; turkey, seasonally harvested veggies, giant family dinners, thankfulness (and maybe a little football). But what about the stories we’ve been told since we were young, about pilgrims and Indians, and a tradition that’s based on peace?
The origin story of Thanksgiving in the Americas is based on a feast purported to have occurred in 1621 at the first colony established by the pilgrims borne from England by the Mayflower. At the time numbering only a few dozen, these particular settlers had spent several months leading up to their celebration forging a sort of “friendship” with the native Wampanoag Indians who inhabited the region. This peaceful alliance was made possible by the famous Squanto, a former Pawtuxet tribe member who had been kidnapped years before and subsequently learned English during his time as a slave near London.
Like many of the other tribes that inhabited North America, the Wampanoag would’ve had piercings in their ears, possibly slightly stretched, and various types of temporary body painting and/or permanent tattooing. A number of native peoples existing in what is now the northern United States were known to pierce areas of the ears and face with indigenous plant materials or animal bones. Mostly this constituted a right of passage or solidified a bond with the other members of the tribe. Likely these modifications would have appeared strange or even slightly frightening to the pilgrims.
Through their interactions though, the Indians taught the Mayflower colonists to survive the freezing Winters of New England and showed them the cycles by which they could live off the land. This included lessons in catching fish, building large fires, and cultivating vegetable crops that would stave off malnutrition. The story goes that in November of that year, the pilgrims thanked the Wampanoag for helping them bring in their first successful corn harvest by inviting a small party to feast with them in celebration. This, many believe, is the observance that would evolve into the holiday known as Thanksgiving.
Although the feast of 1621 is credited with leading to Thanksgiving as we know it, there are many harvest festivals that predate it by hundreds or even thousands of years. Giving thanks to the gods or to the earth for a bountiful harvest was a rudimentary concept amongst many early pagan peoples. Amongst the most common ways to celebrate these occasions were the lighting of a large fire, feasting together as a community, passing down tribal legends through storytelling, and the exchanging of various food gifts. In some tribal societies, offerings to the gods themselves even included bloodletting through ritual piercings, though they were usually temporary in nature.