While many elements of our traditional Thanksgiving meal differ from those on the menu for the first Thanksgiving feast in 1621, the New England harvest's bounty is a universal theme. The desire to share hospitality and good fortune with others and give thanks for abundance is also transcendent throughout the centuries.
When the pilgrims landed in present-day Massachusetts in the fall of 1620, they were unaware of what native foodstuffs were safe and nutritious to eat. Furthermore, these European settlers were unsure how to cultivate the European crops they brought along in the form of seeds in the New World. Fortunately for the settlers, the Wampanoag tribe shared its knowledge and expertise with them. In return for their generosity, the Pilgrim leader, Governor William Bradford, invited the Wampanoags to a three-day feast, which would later be known as the first Thanksgiving.
At this celebration, there is a record that wild fowl, such as geese, ducks, pigeons, and turkeys, constituted a significant portion of the meal in addition to seafood such as lobster, clams, mussels, and eels. Other food available included squashes (pumpkins, too!), beans, chestnuts, hickory nuts, onions, leeks, dried fruits, radishes, cabbage, carrots, eggs, and goat cheese. For sweeteners, the pilgrims had maple syrup and honey available. While maple syrup was a New World treat they learned about from the Wampanoags, the early settlers had the foresight to bring honey bees and them when they left the Old World.
Several centuries would pass before the idea of a national day to give thanks resurfaced in America's consciousness. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued a 'Thanksgiving Proclamation' on third October 1863 and officially set aside the last Thursday of November as the national day for Thanksgiving. He was encouraged to do so by Sarah Josepha Hale, an American magazine editor, persuaded Abraham Lincoln. (By the way, she is also the author of the beloved nursery rhyme "Mary Had a Little Lamb"). In 1939, President Roosevelt proclaimed that Thanksgiving would take place on November 23rd, not November 30th, as an incentive to encourage the country's economic growth and extend the Christmas shopping season. A few years later, Congress passed a law on December 26, 1941, ensuring that all Americans would celebrate Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November every year.