Thanksgiving Day will be celebrated as always with family gatherings, festive turkey dinners, football and other holiday traditions, but it’s also a time to remember the hardy group known as Pilgrims who established the first successful New England colony and marked their first Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Massachusetts. .
The famous Plymouth Rock is often the first stop for tourists. It’s a plain and rather small boulder on the waterfront, with an enclosed portico built to shelter it. On the rock, the date 1620 is engraved, marking the arrival of the first Pilgrims.
Sometimes visitors seem a bit disappointed when they first see Plymouth Rock.
“Is that it? It looks much smaller than I expected,” said one tourist.
For most, the power of the rock is its symbolism, not its size. A Plymouth tourist guidebook quotes Alexis de Toqueville ‘s observation: “Here is a stone which the feet of a few outcasts pressed for an instant; and the stone becomes famous; it is treasured by a great nation; its very dust is shared as a relic.”
Even if Plymouth Rock is the most famous here, another major attraction − and a much more extensive one − is Plimoth Plantation. (This is the name and spelling that Pilgrims gave to their first settlement)
“Welcome to the 17th Century” reads the large sign that greets visitors to this 140 acre site. And as soon as we walked past the sign, we indeed felt transported back in time as we explored this re-creation of a 1627 farming community built by the Pilgrims.
Here, colonial Plymouth comes vividly to life. There are the modest timber-framed houses. Visitors are welcome to step inside and reproductions of the objects the Pilgrims owned, including tables, chairs, beds, utensils and more.
Moreover, we met Pilgrims in 17th century attire who answered questions and spoke in the dialect of the early settlers.
In real life, of course, they’re not Pilgrims but highly knowledgeable colonial interpreters who go through a rigorous training program. Then they take on the roles of actual colonials who lived here. The names and specifics of these colonials were carefully researched by checking records kept by the Pilgrims.
These interpreters stay totally in character as they portray the actual Pilgrims who lived here in 1627. If visitors ask about their farm chores, their religious beliefs, their relationships with Native Americans, or any topic relevant to their village lives, they will answer knowledgeably. But since they never step beyond the time boundary of the 17th century, if visitors mention computers or cars, they’ll respond with a blank look.
Also on hand are guides who are not portraying 17th century characters, so they speak from a modern perspective as they give additional background on life in the 1600s.
Besides the typical homes, there’s the Wampanoag home site, which shows how one native American family lived side by side with the Pilgrims. It’s staffed by modern Wampanoags who talk about the bi-cultural experience of the native Americans and the Pilgrims.
Not surprisingly, Thanksgiving is the biggest day of the year for Plimoth Plantation, when visitors can feast on a festive Thanksgiving dinner. (It’s usually sold out long in advance). The menu includes the classic roast turkey with all the traditional New England trimmings.
Pilgrim interpreters are on hand to talk about the original 1621 feast and authentic colonial recipes. They can also discuss the history of the holiday, from its earliest days to Lincoln’s declaration of the first official Thanksgiving holiday in l864 all the way to the modern holiday.
Then, too, there’s even a history of the foods used to celebrate Thanksgiving. Food historian, Kathleen Curtin, is author of “Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving History and Recipes from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie.” It covers 400 years of Thanksgiving recipes.
Another Pilgrim site which is part of Plimoth Plantation − although it’s located on the waterfront − is the Mayflower 11. It’s a meticulously detailed replica of the original vessel that sailed from England in 1620, carrying 102 passengers and 28 crew members on a 60 day journey across the high seas to Plymouth.
However, this valuable site is now being refurbished and will be open to visitors again in the spring of 2019, in plenty of time for the gala celebration planned for Plymouth in 2020 when the town will celebrate 400 years since the arrival of the Pilgrims.
Despite the temporary absence of the Mayflower 11, Plymouth has still other attractions besides Plimoth Plantation and the famous rock. They include Pilgrim Hall Museum, where visitors can see an extensive collection of authentic Pilgrim artifacts, and the Plymouth National Wax Museum, with over 180 life size figures in 26 scenes depicting the Pilgrim story.
It was these Pilgrims who established the first Thanksgiving dinner in 1620, so it’s not surprising that visitors are especially drawn to Plymouth at Thanksgiving time.