Thanksgiving date spurs historic debate

Cliff Firstenberg - Ailsa Firstenberg in the costume she wears as a historic interpreter in Williamsburg. On her tours, she wears what girls would have worn 240 years ago.

“The first real Thanksgiving was near here,” said Ailsa Firstenberg, a 16-year-old junior interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg, not far from the James River and the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia.

Since she was 11 years old, Ailsa has put on a colonial costume to volunteer helping kids and their families get a better picture of America’s earliest days. It’s part of visiting historic Williamsburg and Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in what would become the United States, established on May 14, 1607.

(Pamela Blount) - Colonial Williamsburg’s Powell House, which dates to 1774.

(Pamela Blount) - Thanksgiving at the Williamsburg’s Powell House in the late 1700s probably featured fish and turtles, and probably not any turkey.

“I feel like when you’re here, you’re in the old days,” Ailsa said, straightening her petticoat, jacket, apron, and bonnet — things girls her age would have worn long ago.

Ailsa expects to spend part of this week conducting tours at Colonial Williamsburg’s Powell House, which dates to 1774. Kids will follow her around the big kitchen in back where the earliest Thanksgiving feasts centered on fish, turtles, partridges, raccoons, oysters, greens and lots of pumpkins.

“No turkey,” Ailsa said. “That was rare.”

Everyone will walk to the garden just outside the kitchen door. Visiting kids may help Ailsa pull cabbage, peas, beets and sweet potatoes for the cooks inside. An hour or so later, everyone can sample the cooked greens from the garden.

Many people think the first Thanksgiving happened in the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts in 1621 to celebrate a successful harvest. But Williamsburg historian Taylor Stoermer says settler communities in what was then called the New World often had celebrations to give thanks. Records show that Spanish conquistadors had religious Thanksgiving services at San Elizario, Texas, in 1598.

And on Dec. 4, 1619, 38 settlers from England survived a storm to find land on the James River. The settlers were so glad to have survived the storm and at last be in Virginia, that ship’s captain, John Woodleaf, decreed Dec. 4 a day for giving thanks in the New World, Stoermer says.

Abraham Lincoln is responsible for the holiday we have now. In 1863, he decreed (or decided) that Thanksgiving Day should be celebrated on the last Thursday in November. (It was later changed to be the fourth Thursday of each November.)

As for that famous “first Thanksgiving” with the Pilgrims in Plymouth, many of the traditions that Americans follow on Thanksgiving started with that feast in November 1621.

Ailsa says she doesn’t care about who celebrated Thanksgiving first.

“I just love knowing about the history,” she said. “When I grow up, I want to bring my kids here to know about it, too.”

And a love of history is certainly something to be thankful for.

— Raymond M. Lane

 
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