Interview – Rebecca Griffith – Associate Curator of the Pilgrim Hall Museum

This week we have a very special Thanksgiving interview.  I spoke with the associate curator of the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, MA — Rebecca Griffith.  We talked about the history of Thanksgiving, Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving, and when it became a holiday.  If you are a history buff or want to know more about the actual first Thanksgiving, then you will enjoy this interview!

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Good morning, Rebecca and thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk with our readers today about the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving!  Can you please explain what the Pilgrim Hall Museum is and what you do there?

Pilgrim Hall Museum is America’s oldest continuously operated public museum.  We opened our doors in 1824 and have been America’s home of Pilgrim possessions ever since.  We have a great collection of 17th century Pilgrim artifacts, some of which may have come over on the Mayflower, and many great early American objects as well as monumental paintings from the 19th century depicting various scenes from the Pilgrim story.

As associate curator, it is my job to oversee the collection and exhibits in their entirety, meaning I ensure their care and continued preservation for future generations to enjoy. I also get to come up with new and exciting displays and exhibits to showcase the collection and the different themes embedded in the Pilgrim story.

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So let’s talk a little about the first Thanksgiving in 1621.  Can you briefly set the scene for us on what happened in Plymouth that would make the Pilgrims have a Thanksgiving feast?

So first, it’s important to remember that about half of the Pilgrims died during that first harsh winter of 1621.  By the time of the first thanksgiving, there are only 53 Pilgrims in attendance, including women and children.  The only 17th century sources we have for this event is a small paragraph written by Edward Winslow, and then Bradford mentions it in his famous journal Of Plymouth Plantation, years later.  They describe a harvest celebration, in which the Sachem Massasoit brought 90 of his men, for the feast. The first thanksgiving was basically a mixture of different traditions, mainly a harvest festival, a religious day of thanksgiving, and a secular day of thanks to celebrate a specific event (mainly their survival).

So we have the Pilgrims who had just came to America and the Native Americans who were already here.  Why is the first Thanksgiving such an important event?

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Thanksgiving is an important symbol of many things that have been important to Americans – the coming together of families, expression of gratitude, the immigrant experience, and the opportunity to bridge differences and bring people together.

Was Plymouth in 1621 really the first Thanksgiving or were their other thanksgiving feasts before that?

There were other early thanksgivings in colonial America- but the New England feast of 1621 is the one our national holiday is based on and the feast that best embodies the ideals of families coming together.

After the first feast in 1621, Thanksgiving wasn’t an official holiday that was celebrated annually, correct?  When did it become a national holiday?

Correct, days of thanksgiving were proclaimed intermittently for the next few centuries.  Thanksgiving becomes a national holiday largely thanks to the efforts of Sarah Josepha Hale in the mid-19th century.  In 1863, President Lincoln issued a formal proclamation, proclaiming a national day of thanksgiving. After that, each president had to proclaim the day of thanksgiving, until the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives passed a bill establishing that Thanksgiving would occur annually on the fourth Thursday of November. On November 26, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed this bill into law.

Can you describe what the Pilgrims would have ate at the first Thanksgiving?  What did the Native American contribute?

The actual feast would have looked a little different than a modern thanksgiving table, and we do not know exactly what was served.  We do know that Massasoit and his men brought 5 deer, and Bradford mentions waterfowl and even turkeys.  So, there may have been turkey at the first thanksgiving- it just might not have been the centerpiece!  There was also likely shellfish, and other marine life served, as these would have been the resources that were plentiful in Massachusetts in November. Corn, in grain form for bread or for porridge would also have been present, but sadly no pies, potatoes, or cranberry sauce like those that we enjoy today.

Now it is time for a random holiday question.  Rebecca, out of all of the random holidays and special days that are on the calendars these days, what is your favorite holiday?  It can be anything from Thanksgiving to something random like Talk-Like-A-Pirate Day!  And if you want to answer – what holiday would you create if you could create any?

I would have to say my favorite holiday is Christmas.  I love getting to see and spend time with my extended family- we do a traditional Italian Christmas eve dinner with the 7 different fishes and it is absolutely my favorite meal of the year!

I don’t know what holiday I would create- they have so many holidays now that I never knew of (national book day, or dog day for example) that I think we have plenty to celebrate throughout the year!

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Thanks Rebecca for taking the time to answer a few Questions To Inspire about Thanksgiving.  Please check out the Pilgrim Hall Museum’s website to learn more about the Pilgrim story and a big part of our national history.

Thanks everyone for reading Questions To Inspire and check out some of our other interviews!  See you next time!

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