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Celebrate Thanksgiving Pilgrim-Style

Once again, families across the U.S. will come together on the fourth Thursday of November to eat mass quantities of turkey and stuffing, share politely strained conversation with rarely-visited relatives, and claim a spot on the couch to indulge in a food coma. There might be a few mumblings about why we should all be thankful, but let’s get real—Thanksgiving has become all about the food.

Don’t get me wrong; I love Thanksgiving, particularly my grandma’s corn casserole. But it feels like the same routine every year. This year, I suggest we spice things up and return to our old school roots—I mean really old school. For a unique and historic take on Thanksgiving, let’s ditch the pumpkin pie and borrow a few ideas from our pilgrim predecessors.

Lose the Turkey
Though the information we have for what’s considered the first Thanksgiving (which occurred after a successful harvest in 1621) is limited, we do know that the pilgrims ate plenty o’ meat. However, whether they ate turkey is debatable. Journal entries from that time specify venison, seafood, and fowl, but fowl could’ve meant ducks, geese, and even eagles. To be safe, stick with dried deer meat and fish. (They didn’t have a way to preserve meat back then, so drying was the best way to prevent spoilage.)

Also, say goodbye to stuffing, cranberry sauce, and other dishes we consider traditional Thanksgiving fare. At the pilgrims’ party, they probably noshed on fruit, corn (the Wampanoag tribe having showed them how to properly grow it), and squash. Really though, it was all about the meat in those days. (Sorry, vegetarians. Enjoy the dried corn!) Somehow, I can’t imagine a plate of deer jerky having the same star quality as a platter of roasted turkey, but I guess main dish standards were different in those days.

Make It a Three-Day Dance-Off
The pilgrims weren’t exactly party animals, but when they did throw a shindig, they made it last. When they got together with the Wampanoag those fateful autumn days, they spent the whole time dancing, playing games, singing, and generally enjoying each other’s company. Though the celebration came about because of the bountiful harvest, the food played a less important role. In fact, there wasn’t even a formal sit-down dinner; people just ate when they felt like it. That’s one way to avoid the mad rush to get all the food on the table to appease the cranky, starving masses (and the post-dinner bloat).

Granted, three straight days of the Thanksgiving we know now sounds less than appealing (and may lead to bloodshed if your family is really dysfunctional), but what if it involved days of playing air hockey, busting a move on the (living room) dance floor, and seeing your batty Aunt Sally’s rendition of “Apple Bottom Jeans?” The pilgrim version is sounding better and better!

Have the Guests Provide the Eats
Hosting a Thanksgiving meal can be fun, especially if your definition of fun involves frenzied organizing and bursting into stress-induced tears when the mashed potatoes are deemed “too dry” by your second cousin. (Was that just my experience?) There’s no need to cry at the table and make everyone uncomfortable. Just make them bring the food! When the pilgrims invited the Native Americans to their feast, there wasn’t enough food to go around (I guess that harvest wasn’t so bountiful after all), so the Native Americans ended up providing most of the food.

For a modern (and less tacky) version of this, just ask your guests to bring the side-dishes—as in, something more substantial than dinner rolls or a can of cranberry sauce. Make your Thanksgiving party a potluck and everyone will feel like they contributed equally to the delicious meal. Plus, you’ll save money on the pre-dinner grocery store trip. Your wallet—and sanity—will thank you.

Actually Be Thankful for a Change …
Believe it or not, the origins of this holiday came from the pilgrims wanting to celebrate a successful crop yield. It was a small success (hence the need for the Wampanoag tribe to provide most of the feast), but they were grateful for what they received and celebrated accordingly. Somewhere along the way, holidays turned into chaotic ordeals that encourage complaining and anxiety. There is so much expectation about what Thanksgiving should be (read: the perfect family gathering centered on a picture-perfect feast) that when things go awry (a slightly-charred turkey, a heated political debate at the dinner table), we lose sight of what Thanksgiving is—an excuse to give thanks with family and friends for the small, often-overlooked successes in life.

 … or Feel Free to Skip It
If you really can’t find anything to be thankful for, don’t celebrate! It’s not like the pilgrims celebrated every year. After the first Thanksgiving, they didn’t have another three-day party until two years later to mark the end of a drought and the return of their harvest. So if a bleak financial situation or the thought of planning an elaborate meal is giving you an ulcer, opt out of the holiday this year. Instead, find a time to bring your loved ones together when you can relax and be grateful for the company.

What celebrating pilgrim-style ultimately means is a return to simplicity on Thanksgiving. We don’t have to adopt all of their rituals and dishes (I don’t know about you, but I’m not giving up stuffing), but focusing on gratitude and actually enjoying the company of family and friends instead of dreading it would put a healthier spin on what has become the most gluttonous holiday of the year. Besides, if we really want to return to the holiday’s roots, we’d have to go kill various birds and deer and hang the meat to dry, which sounds like a lot of trouble. Hmm … suddenly preparing a turkey doesn’t seem as overwhelming.

Updated November 24, 2010