From Pilgrims to pumpkins, the story of the first Thanksgiving plucks a familiar chord. A visit to Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Mass., brings to life the facts and myths that have found their way into the history books.
Open from April through November, this living-history museum shows the everyday life of a 1627 Pilgrim -- seven years after the Mayflower unloaded passengers at Plymouth Rock. By then, other ships had arrived and the settlers had organized into a community, built cabins and successfully planted corn, barley and other crops.
The people portraying the Pilgrims go through intensive training -- devouring history books during breakfast, mimicking language tapes by the hour, and learning about every facet of the 1620s. Off duty, two of the cast discuss their namesakes in the present tense, moving in and out of character, still living history even on their break.
Both emphatically stress that they want to bring the past to life, by turning lists of places and dates into scenarios showing what made these 17th-century folks tick. By the time you meet them in the village, they have pledged to be "time-warped" to the year 1627, where their knowledge ends. A visitor's photo request will bring a shrug of the shoulders, a puzzled look at the black box pointed at them, and a mutter of "Whatever ye will, so long as nobody gets hurt."
Each of the 45 interpreters assumes the persona of an original immigrant -- using the appropriate accent and Old-World style of thinking to re-create the personality. Wearing early 17th-century clothes they move among more than 20 buildings on the plantation doing daily chores and proclaiming the separatist Protestant beliefs that brought them to the New World.
The Pilgrims love to draw their guests into the scene, asking and answering questions from a 1627 mind-set. Easily falling into the pattern and playing along, tourists soon are saying "me-ith stay-edd in Boston for a fortnight" or some such version of early English. Caution: If a woman bellows out, "Beware, slops," take cover -- for she is about to dump something unpleasant from her doorstep.
The residents speak about the hardships they endured on the sea voyage, describe the herb- and meat-pie dinner they are consuming while salivating guests watch, invite tourists to tag along while they feed the animals or tend crops, explain where the four children sleep in the tiny one-room house with only one bed, and lecture about religious, political, medical and social ideas of the 1620s. But they won't talk about Thanksgiving.
Some will ascertain that you must be thinking of the harvest festival they had back in 1621 -- and have not repeated since. "Miles Standish" explains that, to them, the word "thanksgiving" means a pious religious experience celebrated by a day of prayer. Thankful that a drought or other crisis had passed, they observed a time of fasting -- not feasting.
From time to time in Colonial history, harvest festivals were briefly celebrated. Presidents Washington, Adams and Monroe all proclaimed National Thanksgivings, but the custom fell out of favor. In 1863, however, Abraham Lincoln declared a national day of Thanksgiving for the last Thursday in November. Like many of Lincoln's edicts, that one stuck, and a holiday was born -- modified only slightly, by Franklin D. Roosevelt, to occur on the fourth Thursday.
Today, at Plimoth, the plantation's autumn schedule affords many opportunities for modern-day Pilgrim-seekers who want to talk turkey. In mid-October Plimoth re-creates the Autumnal Feasting (formerly called Dutch Days), an event that actually occurred in 1627, when the New Amsterdam Dutch from Manhattan journeyed north to discuss trade.
Seventeenth-century games, songs, sports and military demonstrations continue for a week. Bountiful harvest feasts show off agricultural and animal-husbandry skills. Wild fowl, fish, freshly slaughtered beef and venison, all cooked to perfection, are accompanied by beans, stewed squash, garden vegetables and gallons of home-brew. Sugar is scarce and apples not yet grown in New England, so there is little likelihood of pumpkin or apple pie. The same goes for cranberries. Unsweetened, the bitter berries have not had much of an impact on the Colonial diet. Neither coffee nor tea has been introduced yet.
In 1993, 20th-century adventurers get the opportunity to partake of a late 17th-century harvest feast today, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, but not Thanksgiving Day. The menu tells diners they may expect "boiled Spinage and Colewort Sallet, Mussels Steamed in Beer, Stewed Sweet Potatoes, Crimped Cod, Roast Filet of Beef, Spit Roasted Turkey, Indian Pudding" and more.
On Thanksgiving Day, far away from routine village activity, the visitor center offers a more "traditional" buffet, including roast turkey with sausage stuffing, Cape Cod cranberry sauce, pumpkin bread and apple brown betty with coffee or tea.
The nearby town of Plymouth provides more Pilgrim pageantry during Thanksgiving Preview Weekends, with Colonial lantern tours, 17th-century cooking, singing and dancing.
On the holiday morning, costumed participants re-enact the Pilgrims in procession to church. Open through November, the Mayflower II -- a full-size replica -- welcomes landlubbers aboard. Plymouth National Wax Museum tells the familiar story in life-size wax tableaux. Nearby, Pilgrim Hall Museum gives more insight into the era. Travelers can inspect historic houses, and most pay homage to a rather humble-looking Plymouth Rock.
For those who missed dinner at the plantation, Pilgrim re-enactors spread a contemporary public feast for 1,500 guests in Plymouth's Memorial Hall. You can celebrate the holiday in the manner to which you've become accustomed, but remember, at Plimoth it's perpetually 1627.
IF YOU GO . . .
* What: Plimoth Plantation
* When: Daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. April through November
* Information: P.O. Box 1620, Plymouth, Mass. 02362; (508) 746-4978 or (508) 746-1622
* How to get there: Route 3, Plymouth, Mass. (one hour south of Boston)
* Cost: $18.50 adult, $11 child includes Mayflower II, Hobbamock's Homesite (Wampanoag American-Indian exhibit), and craft center showing 17th-century weaving, pottery, basketry and joinery.
* Special events: 17th-century dining and public feasts: 5:30 p.m. Nov. 21, 24, 26, 27. (Note: Thanksgiving is not one of these dates.) Advance reservations requested by calling (508) 746-3440. Admission: adult $37, child $25, includes access to plantation activities.
Thanksgiving day buffet, Nov. 25: seatings at 11 a.m.; 1 p.m., 3 p.m., 5 p.m. Advance reservations requested by calling (508) 746-3440. Admission: adult $27.95, child $19.95, includes access plantation activities.
* Nearby: Town of Plymouth's Public Pilgrim Thanksgiving at Plymouth Memorial Hall on Nov. 25 only. Seatings at 11 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 2 p.m., 3:30 p.m. Admission: adult $22, child $15 (does not include visit to plantation sites). Call (508) 746-3377.
For general information, contact Plymouth Area Chamber of Commerce at 91 Samoset St., Plymouth, Mass. 02360, (508) 746-3377.
* Fall lodging packages in Plymouth: Sheraton Inn at Village Landing, (508) 747-4900; Governor Bradford Motor Inn, (508) 746-6200; Pilgrim Sands Motel, (508) 747-9000. For additional lodging information, call Plymouth County Development Council toll-free at (800) 231-1620.