Thanksgiving Food and Fun for History Lovers

Four states lay claim to hosting the first Thanksgiving dinner, but no matter if it’s talking turkey or serving history with a grain of salt is anyone’s guess. Luckily, there are plenty of ways—and places—to take a step back in time and get a taste of fun.

Wampanoag at Plimouth Plantation

© Suru99 | Dreamstime

Plimouth Plantation, Plymouth, Mass.

No, it’s not just the home of Plymouth Rock—there’s plenty to celebrate with the family in Massachusetts, which traces its roots all the way back to the Mayflower Pilgrims, and even earlier with historical learnings from the Wampanoag Patuxet Native American tribe, too. At this re-creation settlement, kids can play 17th-century games, learn period songs and dances, get hands-on with grain grinding and crafts and explore a 17th-century kitchen garden. Or, enjoy savory time travel at a Thanksgiving weekend buffet dinner with all of the fixings and traditional songs. You’ll also be treated to entertainment and a question and answer session about the colony and England with costumed visitors. All month long, Harvest Dinners with most of the same treats are available for those who can’t make it on the holiday itself.

Not able to visit this year? Enjoy an online adventure and play history detective when you learn about Wampanoag traditions of giving thanks, visit Pilgrim Mary’s home and read historic eyewitness accounts of the first Thanksgiving meal.

Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown, Va.

Laying claim to the first Thanksgiving in 1619—two years earlier than Massachusetts’ record in 1621—is Williamsburg, Va., home to Berkeley Plantation. Each November, the plantation hosts the Virginia Thanksgiving Festival with a traditional dinner just a bit earlier than the fourth Thursday in November (the fifth to be exact!). You’ll enjoy tribal Native American dancers, arts and crafts, choral music and a re-enactment of the Landing of Capt. Woodlief and his men. Or, learn how food was gathered, preserved and served by Virginia’s English colonists and Powhatan Indian at the Jamestown Settlement, where the café will host a Thanksgiving meal mid-day on the 23rd—first come, first served.

Old Sturbridge Village 1

© Old Sturbridge Village

Sturbridge Village, Sturbridge, Mass.

Sturbridge may celebrate life two centuries later than the first Thanksgiving, but hey, the pace of life—and progress—was slow back in the day. It wasn’t, however, so slow families could wait for turkeys to cross the road, and in the early 1800s “drovers” herded and marched the birds on foot from central and western Massachusetts to the Boston area to sell to the wealthy, which you’ll learn along with some other food trivia. That includes cranberries, one of three fruits native to North America; and insight on old “refrigeration” techniques during a visit to this living history museum, where Sunday bounty suppers are a great way to work up an appetite for the holiday and history in November. Kids can watch village-goers compete in a post-dinner target shoot and learn about weeks-long preparations for holiday meals before there were microwaves and fast food. 

Old Sturbridge Village 2

© Old Sturbridge Village

Strawbery Banke, Portsmouth, N.H.

Celebrate “300 Years of Thanksgiving Traditions” at Strawbery Banke, a 10-acre history museum that brings three centuries in the same waterfront neighborhood to life in darling Portsmouth, N.H. Eight heritage gardens, 32 historic buildings, costumed role-players, artifacts and hands-on activities for all ages portray life going back to the early 1700s in the “Live Free or Die” state. Ninety-minute guided holiday tours trace the evolution of the Puritans’ day with harvest crafts and costumed role players. Themes covered include gratitude, national identity, survival, charity and the celebration of family and community.