December 21st 1620: Mayflower lands

On this day in 1620, William Bradford and the Mayflower Pilgirms landed at Plymouth Rock in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The Mayflower transported the first English Pilgrims to America, with 102 passengers. When the Pilgrims disembarked, they founded the Plymouth Colony. The Plymouth Colony, along with Jamestown, Virginia, was one of the earliest successful colonies to be founded by the English in North America. The colony succeeded due to the help of Squanto, a Native American of the Patuxet people, and it was this co-operation between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans which inspires the Thanksgiving tradition in America. The journey of the Mayflower is considered a major and symbolic event in American history.

20 Crazy, Interesting Facts About Thanksgiving You Never Knew

We think of Thanksgiving as an American tradition, but it actually has roots all over the world. The Separatists and Puritans who came to America back in the day celebrated similar traditional holidays back at home. In ancient times, the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans had religious feasts after the fall harvest. It is also similar to a Jewish harvest festival called Sukkot, and Native Americans also had a history of celebrating the fall harvest for years before Europeans came to America.


pumpkin–the large orange fruit of a cultivar (Cucurbita pepo) of the squash genus Cucurbita.

Pumpkins are easy to grow; their big green leaves smother the weeds so that in the fall there are always several of the orange squashes to harvest for every vine.  The ease of cultivation and long storage life were important to early American Colonists.  At times pumpkins were all they had to eat.  

A poem, New Englands Annoyances, from the 1630’s attests to the importance of pumpkins in the Colonist’s diet.

Instead of pottage and puddings and custards and pies,
Our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies;
We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon,
If it was not for pumpkins we should be undone!

How the colonists cooked pumpkins (pompons) in 1630:

“The Housewives manner is to slice them when ripe, and cut them into dice, and so fill a pot with them of two or three Gallons, and stew them upon a gentle fire a whole day, and as they sink, they fill again with fresh Pompions, not putting any liquor to them; and when it is stew’d enough, it will look like bak’d Apples; this they Dish, putting Butter to it, and a little Vinegar, (with some Spice, as Ginger, &c.) which makes it tart like an Apple.”

What is a pumpkin?  It is a kind of “curcurbit” a family of plants that includes squash, watermelons, cucumbers, gourds and the luffa.  The curcurbits readily hybridize, so that there are an endless number of squash and pumpkin crosses and varieties.  Most pumpkins you see in stores today are varieties bred for carving, but in the old days they were bred for their taste.  You can still buy good eating varieties. 

The pumpkin came to Europe from North America before the Pilgrims travelled the other way.  Pumpkins were being cultivated in Europe fifty years after 1492.  Pumpkins are a domesticated variety of a wild Mexican squash, Cucurbita sororia.  Pumpkins were probably the first vegetables to be domesticated in North America, followed by maize and then by beans.  The oldest remains have been found in Mexico dating to 8750 BCE.  Remains dating to 4000 BCE have been found in Missouri.

Native Americans developed the milpa system of agriculture growing beans, corn (maize) and squash in a single hill.  This combination is sometimes called the “three sisters.”  The squash served to shade out weeds and the corn provided a support for growing bean vines. 

Word origin:  

From the European side,pumpkin” comes, by way of France, from Latin peponem  melon, and Greek pepon, also meaning melon.  “Pumpkin-pie” is recorded from 1650s.

From the Native American side, “squash” comes from the Algonquian word askutasquash, meaning “a green thing eaten raw or uncooked."  Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, documented that language in his 1643 publication A Key Into the Language of America.[82]  “Squash” is one of about 150 generally used Algonquian Indian words in the English language today. The impact of Algonquian languages on English vocabulary was primarily limited to names of North American animals (caribou, wapiti, moose, chipmunk, raccoon, muskrat, opossum, woodchuck, terrapin, skunk,) plants (hickory, pecan, persimmon, tamarack, squash), food dishes (hominy, pemmican, succotash, pone), and  cultural terms (moccasin, wigwam, tomahawk, sachem, sagamore, papoose, powwow).  All these words, however, pale in comparison to the huge number of places in Canada and the United States that bear Algonquian names–including eight American states.


All About Pumpkins

Best Pumpkin for Eating

New Englands Annoyances–poem 1630s

Algonquian Words in English


Durkheim at the parade.

By Jay Livingston, PhD

Emile Durkheim, founding father of sociology and author of The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, would love the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Consider this excerpt from a British observer, Jonathan Raban, who watched the parade twenty years ago from a window on Central Park West. The parade, he said, was…

…the secular, American descendant of the European Catholic Easter procession in which all the icons and saints’ bones are removed from the churches and carried ceremonially around the town. The baseball hero, the gaseous, rubbery Mickey Mouse, the Mayflower pilgrims were the totems and treasure relics of a culture, as the New Orleans jazz and Sousa marches were its solemn music.

Had a serious-minded Martian been standing at the window, he would have learned a good deal by studying the parade’s idyllic version of American history. [guns, refugees, rebels]… The imaginative life of children was honored to a degree unknown on Mars — which was, perhaps, why matters of fact and matters of fiction were so confusingly jumbled up here, with Santa Claus and George Washington and Superman and Abraham Lincoln all stirred into the same pot.

He would be struck by the extraordinarily mythopoeic character of life in this strange country. People made myths and lived by them with an ease and fertility that would have been the envy of any tribe of Pacific islanders. Sometimes there were big myths that took possession of the whole society, sometimes little ones, casually manufactured, then trusted absolutely.

In my class, when we read about religion, Durkheim mostly, I have students write a paper about a secular ritual. One goal of the assignment is to get them to see that, from a functional perspective, a ritual is a way to generate and distribute the energy for binding the members of a society together.  It doesn’t really matter whether the ritual is officially secular or religious. In fact, if you’re a complete stranger to the culture, you probably couldn’t tell the difference.

No student has ever chosen the Macy’s parade. I wonder why not. Raban, who is from England, not Mars, senses the religious aura of the parade with its many gods. Had there been a Macy’s in ancient Greece, the parade would no doubt have had balloon representations of Demeter (god of the harvest), Poseidon (god of the sea), Aphrodite (god of beauty), Hermes (god of silk scarves), and of course in the U.S., Hebe (goddess of youth). And all the rest.

We’re not Athenians. Instead, we throng the streets for icons like Snoopy and Spiderman, Pikachu, Bullwinkle, and Spongebob, but the idea is the same. They are our totems, our gods.

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I imagine Durkheim on Central Park West, watching the children and grown-ups that have come together here to look up to these huge embodiments of our cultural ideals. Durkheim feels a frisson, a shiver of recognition. What better way to symbolize the idea about the binding power of ritual social energy?

Durkheim smiles.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Photos from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade website.

Were Cats and Dogs on the Mayflower?

We know that turkeys were part of the first Thanksgiving in America – or fowl that the Pilgrims called turkeys – but cats and dogs were probably there as well. They may even have sailed to Plymouth Rock on the Mayflower with the pilgrims. When the Mayflower reached America on December 21, 1620, the passengers numbered 102: 52 men, 18 women, 32 children – and probably several cats and dogs.

Mayflower Cats

Cats were welcome aboard sailing ships in the 16th century because they helped control the rodent population and protected finite food supplies. They were so well known as sea-going voyagers that National Geographic once reported that “cats, like people, found freedom from persecution in America. It is believed that they first came over on the Mayflower, although it may have been earlier – with the Spaniards in the 16th century. In any event, once here, they thrived.”

Carolyn Travers, research manager at in Plymouth, Mass., a non-profit, educational institution that bills itself as the living history museum of 17th century Plymouth, confirmed that cats were common on ships, so common in fact that they didn’t warrant mentioning.

“What they talked about was what interested people. Cat were too common to talk about,” Travers said. “Dogs were mentioned on the Mayflower because they tackled wolves, but cats weren’t mentioned.”

The first written mention that Travers said she found of cats dates back to 1634, some 14 years after the Mayflower anchored in what today is Provincetown harbor. William Wood wrote in “New England’s Prospect” how cats saved the colony’s crops from squirrels and probably what we know today as chipmunks.

So, this Thanksgiving Day, and everyday, give thanks for the fact that cats and dogs came to America to help the settlers survive. Today, they help us thrive by significantly adding to the quality of our lives.

Virginia Wells and Susan Bard Hall contributed to this story.

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