Why We Make “Pilgrimages” for Pie on Thanksgiving

Friday, November 182 min read

The U.S. Thanksgiving holiday, celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November, commemorates the 1620 arrival of the Mayflower colonists at Plymouth, Massachusetts, the first permanent European settlement of colonial America. But the Plymouth Puritans didn’t call themselves “pilgrims” when they set sail for the New World. Governor William Bradford referred to the Mayflower colonists as “pilgrimes” in 1630, but it wasn’t until centuries later that the group became recognized as the capital-P “Pilgrims.” At an 1820 bicentennial celebration, renowned orator Daniel Webster used the phrase “Pilgrim Fathers,” and the term was adopted into common usage.

Pilgrimages Across Cultures

“Pilgrim,” first used in English around 1200 CE (spelled “pilegrim”), refers to a person who travels to a holy place. It comes from the Latin peregrinus, meaning “foreigner or stranger.” History and literature are filled with stories of pilgrims, such as the characters in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales,” who journey to visit the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral.

The spelling shift from peregrinus in Latin to pelegrin in Provençal (a Romance dialect), and then to “pilegrim” in Middle English, is a linguistic process called “dissimilation.” As languages evolve over time, similar sounds or letters shift for easier pronunciation. This occurred especially in times when there was no standardized spelling.

But the idea of a spiritual journey — or pilgrimage — is a significant event in many different cultures. Pilgrimages to Jerusalem have been significant in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism for centuries. While not a literally religious experience, thousands of people make pilgrimages every year to visit the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and Jim Morrison’s grave in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris is considered a sacred place for many of his fans.

The latter examples may seem more like a vacation, but Catholic priest Frank Fahey identified several differences between a pleasure trip and a pilgrimage, including faith, community, ritual, and perseverance. “The notion of pilgrimage as a human concept resonates with all nations and peoples,” he said. “There is something in the human heart — in every tradition and religion — that searches for meaning and wholeness.”

Thanksgiving With the Pilgrims

More than 400 years after the Puritans (now also known as the Pilgrims) settled in Plymouth, many Americans still commemorate the day with elements that call back to the roots of the word “pilgrim.” Multiple generations gather at one house, and members might drive or fly long distances to be at the meal. When families can’t be together, new traditions of “friendsgivings” have sprung up to provide folks with a sense of community and ritual. It’s often a day of charitable giving in faith and service organizations. Whether or not the religious traditions of the original Pilgrims are being remembered, the spirit of pilgrimage is alive through the practices of a modern Thanksgiving.

Featured image credit: skynesher/ iStock

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