From five kernels of corn to gobble till you wobble

 Today’s Thanksgiving celebration is marked by over abundance of food and over eating at a table surrounded by family and friends, much like the first Thanksgiving observed by the Pilgrims.

The first celebration had tables groaning under the weight of abundant food but instead of turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, green bean casserole, cranberries, and pumpkin pie, the first Thanksgiving feast featured venison, lobster, mussel, wild fowl, cabbage, onions, corn, and squash,.

The original feast lasted for three days and was held sometime between September 21 and November 11. In addition to feasting, it also included games, races, bow and arrow competitions, dancing, and singing. It was based on English harvest festivals which traditionally occurred around the 29th of September. After the first harvest was completed, Gov. William Bradford proclaimed a day of thanksgtiving and prayer to be shared by all the colonists and neighboring Indians. Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoags came with many of his tribe members bearing venison to add to the feast.

Who were these strange people we know as Pilgrims but who called themselves “saints” or “followers of the congregational way”? They were a strong, independent group of people seeking a purer form of religion, thus the name Puritan is quite often applied to them. They had left the corrupt Catholic Church and Church of England and fled to Holland where they enjoyed the liberal atomosphere of the Dutch and were free of religious persecution. There they were able to worship as they desired but after 12 years they saw their community was melding with the Dutch and their children were growing up without the English language and ways. They felt the need to go to the new world where they had the freedom to establish the society they envisioned.

However, the very first group of Puritans to land in this country are known as Pilgrims. It was not until more than 100 years after their arrival in this country that the name Pilgrim was applied to them. Before that they were merely called “forefathers”. In 1793 the reverend Chandler Robbins delivered the sermon for what was called “Forefathers Day”. He researched the church records and found a copy of Gov. William Bradford’s description of the departure from Leiden, Holland. Bradford described their reluctance to leave the city of Leiden and said:

But they knew they were pilgrims and looked not much on those things, but lifted up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits.

The Pilgrims are perhaps one of the most misunderstood groups in history. A postage stamp was issued commerating the 350th anniversary of the land of the pilgrims. It showed a group of people going to church dressed in black and white and it was said the artist must have painted this scene from a black and white reproduction of the original. The Pilgrims did not wear dull and drab clothing.

Throughout Europe in the 1600’s men and women were wearing beautiful fabrics dyed in brilliant hues. The Pilgrims had moved from England to Leiden, Holland, a large textile city, where they had the freedom to worship as they wished. It is only natural that they would have worn fabrics manufactured and sold in their resident city. Records of their inventories showed that they loved colorful material and their best costumes were very attractive. They wore fabrics dyed red, blue, purple, green, and brown and liked silver buttons and buckles (but not on their hats), pretty wools, velvets, and cottons. Buckles did not come into fashion until later in the seventeenth century and black and white were usually worn only on Sunday and formal occasions. Women typically dressed in red, earthy green, brown, blue, violet, and gray, while men wore clothing in white, beige, black, earthy green, and brown.

To blow another myth, they were not lifeless, funless people. They loved good times with family and friends, enjoyed singing and dancing, and gatherings at the local taverns. They participated in various games, foot racing, wrestling, and card playing. Men enjoyed many of the same activities as men today. They enjoyed sports, hunting, fishing, sailing, farming, eating a hearty meal and sipping a mug of ale, and smoking tobacco.

A fact that is lost through history is that although coming to America was for religious freedom for the Pilgrims, it was also a business venture for their investors. They spent several years negotiating with investors for financial backing before making the voyage. They raised enough money to buy one ship, the Speedwell, and to rent another called the Mayflower. Unfortunately, the Speedwell was not seaworthy and they had to turn back and double up on the Mayflower. When the 102 landed in this country they had a debt of $120,000. It is estimated that they paid back the debt at nearly 40% interest. It was agreed that the Pilgrims would be given passage and supplies in exchange for their working for their backers for 7 years.

The Mayflower returned to England in the spring of 1621 and despite the hardships of the winter, none of the Pilgrims returned with the ship. Of the 102 who made the successful crossing more than half died the first winter as a result of poor nutrition, diseases such as scurvy, and inadequate housing in the harsh weather. Many stayed on the Mayflower and ferried back and forth to shore to build their new settlement. Of of the 102, forty five died the first winter. Additional deaths during the first year meant that only 53 were alive in November 1621 to celebrate the first Thanksgiving.  Of the 18 adult women, 13 died the first winter while another died in May. Only four adult women were left alive for the Thanksgiving.

As was previously mentioned, this voyage was a religious experiment for the Pilgrims but it was a business venture for others. When they celebrated their first harvest after the summer of 1621 the Pilgrims never forgot their obligation to repay the backers who had financed their voyage and left them dangerously close to starvation. The food stores had been almost depleated. At one point a daily ration of food for a Pilgrim was just five kernels of corn. With a simple faith that God would sustain them, no matter what, they pulled through. History records that not a single one of them died from starvation that winter.

The harvest of 1623 brought a surplus of corn, so much so that the Pilgrims were able to help out the Indians. They were so joyous that they celebrated a second Day of Thanksgiving and again invited chief Massasoit to be their guest. He came bringing with him  his wife, several other chiefs and 120 braves. They feasted on 12 venison, 6 goats, 50 hogs and pigs, numerous turkeys, vegtables, grapes, nuts, plums, puddings and pies. But, lest anyone forget, all were given their first course on an empty plate—with just five kernels of corn placed on each plate.

This custom has been continued with many spiritual descendts of the Pilgrims. The five kernels of corn represented all the pilgrims had to eat for the entire day during the difficult winter. The corn that remained was planted in the spring. The five kernels of corn was a reminder that many had nearly starved because of lack of food. Each pilgrim would stand up and pick up each kernel of corn and share five things they were thankful for on Thanksgiving. To this day many families place five kernels of corn on each plate to honor and remember the suffering and spirit of Thanksgiving of our Pilgrim ancestors. They also take turns sharing five blessings for which they are grateful.

For us today Thanksgiving is a time of over eating, football watching, visiting with family and friends, giant balloons, parades and floats. But let us not forget the purpose of the day—a day of giving thanks. The very first Thanksgivings were also filled with overeating, games, and family and friends but they never forgot that their faith in God and belief in their venture is what brought them through difficult times. Today many of us are also saddled with debt, doubt, and depravity but let us never forget the faith and beliefs of our ancestors that we too might overcome life’s many obstacles.

Before we stuff our selves and gobble till we wobble, let us remember what brought us to this point—our ancestors’ unwavering faith and fortitude. I doubt many of us today could survive on just five kernels of corn a day.

In the spirit of our Pilgrim ancestors I am placing five kernels of corn on your virtual plate. What are you thankful this Thanksgiving season of 2010? I am thankful for:

  1. The love of family and friends
  2. Freedom
  3. Good health for myself and my family
  4. A warm and safe home
  5. The courage and sacrafices of all those before me


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