On one of the shortest days of the year, a group of Plymouth citizens continue a centuries-old tradition by celebrating Forefathers Day.
They rise before dawn, don top hats and march to the top of Cole’s Hill next to Massasoit’s statue. They listen to a reading of a proclamation honoring the forefathers, and they’ll fire an old cannon. Then they adjourn for a breakfast of succotash made the Pilgrims’ way: with broth and pieces of fowl.
Before Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday, people around the country celebrated Forefathers Day. They did it to honor the Pilgrims and the values they brought to the new country. Back before the Civil War, few people even knew about the Pilgrims’ big meal with Native Americans. In fact, they didn’t even call them Pilgrims.
But then Thanksgiving came along. The holiday shortened the sermons, improved the dinner fare and spread the mythology of the Pilgrim fathers eating in thankfulness with Massasoit and his tribe.
You could say, however, that Forefathers Day was Thanksgiving before there was a Thanksgiving.
Forefathers Day History
In 1769, seven Mayflower descendants formed the Old Colony Club to commemorate the day the Pilgrims landed. They ignored the Pilgrims’ landing in Provincetown or on Clark Island in Plymouth Harbor. They got the date wrong, too. The Pilgrims landed on December 21, but the mistake was attributed to the change to the Gregorian calendar.
The Old Colony Club had another reason for forming. They wanted to avoid intermixing with the hoi polloi in Plymouth’s taverns. The Club claimed Revolutionary War hero Alexander Scammell as a member.
In a history of New England by Jedidiah Morse and Elijah Parish, they describe the early Forefathers Day as a religious festival. “After public worship, more forcibly to impress their minds with the circumstances of their meritorious forefathers, clams, fish, ground nuts, and victims from the forest, constitute a part of their grateful repast.”
But then came the Revolution, and the Old Colony Club split into Loyalists and Patriots. So they had to abandon Forefathers Day from 1776-1790.
When Forefathers Day resumed, Boston Federalists eagerly took it up to celebrate the traditions of old New England – including resistance to English tyranny.
They celebrated the first 50 or so years ignorant of many of the details about the Pilgrims’ ordeal. Mourt’s Relation went undiscovered until 1823 and Of Plymouth Plantation until 1853. That meant few people knew the story of the harvest festival with Massasoit – the ostensible first Thanksgiving.
That didn’t stop Daniel Webster from giving a two-hour speech about New England’s importance on Forefathers Day in 1819.
How Forefathers Day Spread
Forefathers Day was a day to march in parades, hold formal dinners and listen to sermons. (Perhaps that’s why it didn’t stick.) As late as 1890 and as far away as New York City, Dr. William Everett gave a Forefathers Day speech.
The members of the New England Society of New York adopted Forefathers Day in 1805. As New Englanders migrated west and south, expatriate New Englanders founded New England Clubs all over the country — in Charleston, August, New Orleans, Louisville, Detroit, Cincinnati, Springfield, Ill., and San Francisco.
The New England clubs did charitable work among the poor and socialized. Each adopted Dec. 22, Forefathers Day, to celebrate their New England heritage. Over and over again, they told the Pilgrim story.
Calling the Shots
Orations and sermons praised the Pilgrims for their tolerance, their reverence for law and for liberty, their commitment to public education and their religious faith. And as New England published most of the new nation’s history books before the Civil War, New England got to call the shots about what happened.
Virginia fought back and created its own Forefathers day. The Old Dominion commemorated Jamestown as “chosen ground.” But in 1802 at a Forefathers Day in Plymouth, celebrants gave a toast: “Our Sister Virginia:–When she changes three-fifths of her Ethiopian Skin, we will respect her as the head of our white family.”
But Forefathers Day began to fade away after the Civil War. Thanksgiving celebrants co-opted the Pilgrim story. By 1900 Forefathers Day had fallen into obscurity, everywhere but in Plymouth.
Only in Plymouth will people get up early four days before Christmas and march up a hill in the cold, wrote Old Colony Club member Richmond Talbot.
“Thanksgiving belongs to America, but Forefathers Day is ours alone,” he wrote. “Who but we would come out four days before Christmas to celebrate a completely unrelated event?”
And since the Pilgrims didn’t believe in Christmas, Talbot pointed out they couldn’t even stick fancy fruit above the doors of the Pilgrim Village as they do in Williamsburg.
“We think what they did was worth doing and worth remembering too,” wrote Talbot. “We look at the cold waters of the harbor on Forefathers Day and think of them in an open boat heading toward land. It’s worth the effort to get together with others who care about the Pilgrims.”
Today the Old Colony Club still meets Fridays in a colonial building in Plymouth, and members play an archaic game of cards called Bestia.
This story was updated in 2021. If you enjoyed reading it, you may also read about colonial holidays we no longer celebrate here. Image of the Old Colony Club By John Phelan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67651602.