Nantucket, an island steeped in history and tradition, holds a unique place in the tapestry of Thanksgiving celebrations. While the origins of this cherished holiday on the island remain somewhat elusive, its story is a rich and vibrant one that has evolved over the centuries. Now is the season where you climb up the elegant and grand steps of the Atheneum and as you first step foot inside, there is a rich and vibrant collection of various regional and historical documents, Wampanoag cook books and discussions of the origins and traditions of early Thanksgiving celebrations on Nantucket. Our little town’s very own Atheneum is a rich and resourceful spot that is open to the public and members can gain access to a myriad of resources. It is no easy task to get a decisive answer about this very question. I puzzled the reference librarian and others nearby listening to my query.
Nantucket’s history dates back to its settlement in 1659, rooted in fishing, boatbuilding, and trade. It’s suggested that the island’s inaugural Thanksgiving may have featured seafood, with lobster as a notable dish—maritime feasts possibly comprised of lobster, mussels, bass, clams, oysters, and produce from Native Americans. Abundant lobsters could be hand-plucked at low tide, making Nantucket an ideal setting for a unique Thanksgiving. While the idea of lobster in early celebrations is plausible, historical verification is challenging, and interpretations may differ. Notably, historical records of the 1621 Pilgrim-Wampanoag Thanksgiving in Plymouth don’t specifically mention lobster. The primary sources describe a meal with venison, fowl, seafood, corn, beans, squash, and local foods. The Wampanoag, whose lands include Nantucket, were skilled hunters. The term “Wampanoag” means “People of the First Light,” reflecting their presence in Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, Cape Cod, and Rhode Island. Despite uncertainties, the narrative explores the rich cultural and culinary heritage of Nantucket.
The recorded history of Thanksgiving on the island is a bit mysterious. Were the early celebrations similar to those of the Pilgrims not far from Nantucket’s shores? To unlock these historical secrets, we turn to institutions like the Nantucket Historical Association (NHA), the insights of knowledgeable locals and the Atheneum’s reference librarians.
Thanksgiving has witnessed its fair share of transformations over the years. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving a week earlier to extend the Christmas shopping season, giving rise to the quirky “Franksgiving.” The famous Macy’s Day parade has long-standing roots from a Nantucket family.
For those inquiring about Nantucket during Thanksgiving, the local Chamber of Commerce paints a festive picture. The island comes alive with community meal offerings and events, such as the Turkey Plunge, which is a polar plunge and community efforts to make the holiday special have become enduring customs on the island. Awards you may gain include Farthest Traveled, Best Costume, and Top Fundraiser. If braving the frigid waters isn’t your preference, you can still participate as an observer or volunteer. Listening to the collective gasps and observing the reactions of those taking the plunge into the icy water is always a memorable experience. Refreshments are available to keep you energized, and there’s an emcee who adds a lively touch to the event.
A Presidential Connection
Nantucket holds a special place in the hearts of many, including our current President and First Lady, who have been visiting for years. Local establishments like Faregrounds have embraced the spirit of giving by serving those away from home during this time, embodying the true essence of Thanksgiving.
Perhaps it’s time for Nantucket’s community to embrace a tradition similar to Karma Kitchen, seen in other cities. Imagine a place where meals are gifted forward, creating a perpetual circle of generosity. This beautiful concept could further enrich the tapestry of Thanksgiving on Nantucket. Here is an article that demonstrates how the concept for Karma Kitchen originated: https://www.karmakitchen.org/story.php
This Thanksgiving, as we gather to celebrate on this idyllic island, let’s remember Nantucket’s unique history and consider the potential for new traditions that continue to make it a truly special place.