PLYMOUTH, Mass. — "Thanksgiving has more meaning here where it all started than anywhere else in America. It's our biggest day of the year," said Jeannette Holmes, a direct descendant of two Pilgrims who arrived here on the Mayflower in December, 1620.
Holmes, 83, along with several other women, was busy preparing the First Parish Church in Plymouth for the traditional Thanksgiving ecumenical services.
Many descendants of the Pilgrims who celebrated the first Thanksgiving 364 years ago still live in the Plymouth area.
Plymouth is a beehive of activity each Thanksgiving. Thousands pour into the town of 36,000, from up and down the Eastern Seaboard and other parts of the nation.
They come to partake in the pageantry, to feast on turkey, locally grown cranberries and all the trimmings. They come for the re-enactment of the Pilgrim Progress, a march from the original settlement to their church, and much, much more. "It's like returning to Mecca, that sort of thing," said Tony Lonardo, 51, a local civic leader.
Townspeople of Plymouth invited President Reagan this year to have his Thanksgiving dinner where it all began. No President has ever been here to celebrate the anniversary of America's first harvest feast. The President, who is visiting his Santa Barbara ranch for the holiday, sent his regrets, saying he had other commitments. He asked for a rain check.
Reagan won't make it, but scores of Indian activists from Massachusetts and other states will.
Indians are always part of the Thanksgiving pilgrimage to Plymouth, but not to join in the festivities. For the Indian activists it is a day of fast, not feast, a day of mourning.
Heroic Bronze Statue
They assemble in front of the heroic bronze statue of Massasoit, the Wampanoag Indian chief who signed a peace treaty with the Pilgrims. The statue is on Coles Hill overlooking Plymouth Rock and Harbor.
Each year the Indians tell how the Wampanoags befriended the Pilgrims only to have the Pilgrims and others who came after them take their land.
"The white man stole our land, desecrated it, polluted it," the Indians contend each year in their Thanksgiving Day statement. Ironically, some of the Native Americans who gather at the Massasoit statue are descendants of both Pilgrims and Indians who were here in 1620.
Most of the Wampanoags today have more white blood than Indian blood.
"The peaceful Indian demonstration is part of the Plymouth Thanksgiving tradition. Non-Indians stand around and listen to the Indian speakers and agree with them," said Mary Rondileau, 59, who runs the local wax museum, which depicts the Pilgrim story with historical accuracy in 150 wax figures in 26 scenes.
The first thing everyone looks for on arrival in Plymouth is Plymouth Rock.
Some people expect Gibraltar. Some Californians anticipate something on the order of Morro Rock.
Plymouth Rock on the water's edge is only 4 or 5 feet long and a couple of feet high. Winter storms still break over the rock as in Pilgrim times. The Pilgrims used the rock to step on from their small boat to get ashore. The rock is protected by a huge granite canopy erected by the Society of Colonial Grand Dames of America.
Thanksgiving Day in Plymouth begins with the annual re-enactment of the Pilgrim Procession from Plymouth Rock to the town's two historic churches, the Church of the Pilgrimage (Congregational) and the First Parish Church (Unitarian). Both congregations trace their beginnings to the Mayflower Pilgrims, to Leyden in the Netherlands where the Pilgrims had stayed 12 years, and to Scrooby, their home in England.
The original Plymouth congregation split in a theological dispute in 1801.
Marching to the beat of a drum, townspeople dressed in Pilgrim garb depict the 51 men, women and children who survived the first winter in the New World. Fifty-three who arrived on the Mayflower perished the first year from cold, exposure, lack of nourishment and disease.
The marchers trudge up the steep hill from the harbor passing the Massasoit statue and the sarcophagus with the names of those who perished that first winter. Inside the concrete tomb are the bones of Pilgrims who perished in the winter of 1620, remains found over the years in unmarked graves at the original settlement site.
Leading the procession through town each Thanksgiving are local residents portraying Elder Brewster, Gov. William Bradford and Miles Standish. Others representing the small band of brave colonists include the Brewster children Love, a 9-year-old boy, and Wrestling, his 6-year-old brother; Humility Cooper, Resolved and Peregrine White.
And, of course, John Alden, 21 at the time of the first Thanksgiving, and Priscilla Mullins, 18, whose mother, father and brother died that first winter. Priscilla later married John Alden and they had 11 children. Often descendants of the Aldens portray them in the procession.