Four hundred years ago, in the autumn of 1621, the Pilgrims celebrated what has become known as the First Thanksgiving.
Many depictions show it being held outdoors with numerous Native American guests.
Those who attended had much for which to be grateful.
The Pilgrims survived the brutal winter of 1620-1621 and were able with the help of “Squanto … a member of the Pawtuxet tribe, (to learn how), to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers and avoid poisonous plants” to help ensure their continued survival, according to history.com.
Squanto also helped the settlers forge an alliance with the Wampanoag tribe.
But great sadness shadowed the event as well.
In that first winter, illness took a great toll on both Native Americans and newcomers. Historic records show approximately half of the 102 passengers on the Mayflower died from exposure and illness.
Some of those who died made the perilous journey across the Atlantic because they were seeking freedom to worship as they pleased and some were simply seeking a new life in a new land.
For Native Americans, the day is one of sadness over the immeasurable loss of their ancestors’ lives, land and culture.
The United American Indians of New England plan to gather in Plymouth on Thanksgiving Day to commemorate a National Day of Mourning, as they have each holiday since 1970, according to the group’s website.
Brian Weeden, chair of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, told WCVB-TV Saturday, following Plymouth’s Thanksgiving parade, “We will never forget the atrocities that fell upon our people as a result of their violent trespass.”
400 years later
For those who mark Thanksgiving this year, 400 years later, many will be thankful for their own survival, from coronavirus, while at the same time mourn family members who did not make it.
At this writing, there have been 18,873 confirmed deaths from the virus in Massachusetts since the pandemic hit in March 2020 and another 411 probable deaths, according to the state Department of Public Health.
In The Sun Chronicle area, the number at last count was 312 deaths.
Those 19,284 confirmed and probable deaths equal about three-tenths of 1 percent of the state’s population of 6.9 million, a death rate much lower than what the Pilgrims endured in their little band.
But places at the table will be empty in all of those families.
And last year, before the vaccines were available, many family Thanksgivings were canceled or drastically altered.
Kathleen Provost, 68, of Attleboro said she kept the celebration small and held it in her garage to keep family safe.
The three-car garage was big enough to hold four tables.
Provost’s three grown children and their families each occupied their own table and Kathleen and her husband Bill occupied the fourth.
There were 14 in all.
They were socially distanced, but still managed to enjoy each others company.
And like the Pilgrims 400 years before, it was in an outdoor setting — to some degree.
The garage was heated, but all the windows were open to keep the fresh air flowing and stray germs away.
“We were all in the same room,” Provost said. “We could see each other and talk to each other.”
The precautions worked.
No one contracted coronavirus and the family day was saved even if the surroundings were less than cozy.
“We wanted to be together,” Provost said.
This year will be different for the Provosts. Everyone is vaccinated. This year, some hugs will be exchanged in the house and cars will be in the garage.
Elaine DeRosa, 75, and husband Nick of North Attleboro went to her daughter’s home for their traditional Thanksgiving Day brunch last year.
But like the Provost family it was held in fresh air on a screened-in porch.
And it didn’t last long, DeRosa said.
The pancakes, scrambled eggs and bacon were wolfed down quickly and the time to sit around, drink coffee and converse was cut short.
It was a little less than relaxing.
“It was much quicker,” DeRosa said. “We usually sit and talk.”
And no one could hug.
“My daughter’s kids wore masks and there were no hugs, which was tough,” DeRosa said.
Later that day, her daughter came to enjoy a turkey dinner with her mom and dad, but they did not eat at the same table.
Elaine and Nick ate in the dining room and her daughter ate in the living room.
This year it will be much more normal, she said. “No masks.”
For Louise Thomas, 76, of North Attleboro Thanksgiving was small last year.
She, her daughter, Celeste D’elia of Smithfield, R.I., and a friend Debbie Langlois of North Attleboro, got together.
They usually have turkey like everyone else, but since the gathering was small, they decided to depart from the norm, and why not.
There was nothing normal about last year at all.
They decided to go with lasagna instead.
“It was just the three of us,” Thomas said. “Why do a great big turkey dinner?”
This year turkey will be back on the menu and the three will get together again and later in the day her son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter will come to enjoy dessert and maybe some leftovers.
She expects this year to be more normal.
“It’s mostly just us eating and collapsing,” she said.
Dotti Raymond, 74, of North Attleboro and husband Bob went to their daughter Kristie Raymond’s home in Clinton for the feast last year.
“She didn’t have COVID and we didn’t have COVID,” she said. “It was a good day.”
But the gathering was small and precautions were taken.
“I was a little cautious,” Raymond said. “We stopped the hugging and kissing last year.”
In times past, they’d have as many as 15 over, and Bob would do all the cooking.
Those days sadly have passed.
“It’s been dwindling,” she said of family members who have split off and started other traditions or go to visit other relatives. “What will be will be.”
But this year won’t be like last year.
“We’ll take a turkey breast out and whoever comes over comes over,” she said.
Every child, and she has three grown ones, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, have their own traditions now, so if they don’t meet in person, they get together electronically.
“This year will be quiet, so I expect phone calls, and I will make phone calls,” Raymond said.
Diane Carlon, 76, works in the Attleboro Council on Aging kitchen.
She along with maybe 50 to 100 seniors were sitting at tables at the Good News Bible Chapel on West Street one day last week waiting for the annual senior turkey dinner to be served.
There were flowers and candy treats on the table covered with white tablecloths.
Over the last year, seniors could not enjoy a meal in the senior center.
Seniors are most likely to get a serious case of coronavirus and most likely to die from it.
Carlon said bag lunches were provided daily.
And sadly, some senior center regulars died.
“It’s been hard,” she said. “Especially working for the senior center. We lost a lot.”
And Thanksgiving was not better.
“Last year, everyone stayed home,” she said.
Usually, one group would come for dinner and another for dessert, she said.
She has three grown children and four grandchildren and that’s what Thanksgiving is all about — seeing them.
And this year she will be able to do that.
“Everyone is vaccinated,” she said. “We feel more comfortable.”
And she has one grandson she’s especially close to.
“I can’t wait to see him,” Carlon said. “I miss that kid so much. We’re very close.”
Elena Clarke, 84, of Attleboro said she takes advantage of Market Basket’s Thanksgiving meal in a box which feeds eight.
It has everything needed for a full Thanksgiving feast for $70.
And she will enjoy Thanksgiving with her son and husband who’s been ill.
She’s spent much of her time caring for her husband over the last year.
Clarke is one of those who battled through the pandemic. In addition to being elderly, she has an underlying condition, COPD, so she had to be careful.
“I’m not foolish,” Clarke said. “I wear the mask, and I didn’t go to church.”
But she didn’t stop living either, and she pushed on tenaciously and bravely like the Pilgrims of four centuries ago.
She shrugs off the reality that she’s lived most of her life.
“When it’s time for me to die, it’s time for me to die,” Clarke said, noting that some of her strength developed through a long-time city job.
“I worked for the police department for 34 years,” she said. “I had to be tough with all those men around.”