Many Americans don’t schedule vacation getaways over Thanksgiving because they prefer the tradition of celebrating at home with family. If they travel, it’s usually to be with loved ones. It’s easy to dismiss other travel suggestions, even ideas as intriguing as celebrating at the site of the first Thanksgiving dinner—Plymouth, Massachusetts.
If you put family tradition first, wonderful! But did you know that the annual citywide Thanksgiving festival in Plymouth takes place the Friday through Sunday before? It’s true. You can make your own pilgrimage to this true celebration of Americana and be back in time to enjoy holiday home and hearth. The festival is called America’s Hometown Thanksgiving. In 2015, it’s November 20-22.
Interested? Let’s talk turkey.
America’s Hometown Thanksgiving is three days of food, music, fun and, of course, history. And all of the festivities are an easy drive from either Boston or Cape Cod. Plymouth is just off the cape on the South Shore, just 25 minutes from the Sagamore Bridge.
Festival events all take place on or around the Plymouth Harbor waterfront. There you also can view Plymouth Rock in its portico home and tour the Mayflower II, the docked, full-size replica of the ship that ferried the Pilgrims across the Atlantic in 1620. More on them later.
America’s Hometown Thanksgiving Parade
The best-known festival event is the America’s Hometown Thanksgiving Parade on Saturday. It’s considered one of the top two Thanksgiving parades in the country but is completely unlike the other—the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. That parade is about high-tech floats and slick entertainment promises to reflect contemporary pop culture. The parade in Plymouth makes no such promise, unless you live in the 18th century and your idea of pop culture is fife-and-drum.
This parade sticks to its themes: history and patriotism. It’s a procession of handmade floats, Drum and Bugle Corps performers, military marching units, carolers, antique cars and history re-enactors. The re-enactors march in groups carefully ordered to illustrate the chronology of American historical eras. Along the waterfront parade route, you’ll also enjoy demonstrations of soap, candle and jelly making.
America’s Hometown Thanksgiving waterfront events
Take a free tour of the historic Plymouth waterfront. Attractions include the Mayflower II and Plymouth Rock. 2-4 p.m. (Get more information and make arrangements via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Enjoy food, fun and entertainment at a free Street Festival on court street. 5-7 p.m.
Enjoy a night of music, drama at a free patriotic concert themed to honor American veterans. 6:30 p.m.
The festival and parade are all about paying tribute to the past, giving thanks for the present and expressing hopefulness for the future. Get in the spirit before the parade with the festival’s official opening ceremony on the waterfront. 10:30 a.m.
At the Wampanoag Education Pavilion, you’ll learn about the relationship between the Mayflower colonists and the indigenous Wampanoag people. Re-enactors from both sides interact with one another in a historically accurate manner—and will mingle with you, too. 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
The New England Food Festival offers an afternoon of food, music and fun. Top regional restaurant chefs vie to please celebrity judges—and you—in categories ranging from pastries and confections to soups, chowders and other delights. 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
The parade commences. 11:30 a.m.
Learn how people lived at the time of the early colonists from performers for whom historic re-enacting in more than a hobby. The personalities you’ll find in Portal to the Past, Historic Village and Demonstrations, a living history experience at Brewster Gardens, include actual artisans and tradesmen from all over the country who have immersed themselves in the history of their trades. You won’t encounter someone playing the role o a blacksmith. You’ll encounter a real blacksmith. These re-enactors understand—and accurately convey—the day-to-day joys and hardships of life in the earliest settlements. The village is open to all, free of charge. 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Join in a moment of inspirational solemnity, followed by music and merriment. Illuminate 2015 is an annual candle-lighting tradition, begun in 2014 in anticipation of the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower landing in 1620. 4 p.m.
Some of America’s finest alumni Drum & Bugle Corps perform in a spine-tingling display of musical patriotism. If you’re interested in attending, act in advance by following directions on the website. Tickets for this popular annual concert go fast. 6:30 p.m.
The region’s top crafters all display their wares for judging in the Crafter’s Village. Come see examples of handcrafted jewelry, carvings, clothing, art and more. 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
The Makepeace Farms Harvest Market is open for business. More than 30 local growers and food providers offer jams, sauces, herbs and countless other treats you can bring home for use on your own Thanksgiving meal. Enjoy lively music as you shop or browse—not to mention hot soup, warm barbecue and fresh muffins, too. 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
Attending the festival will take you past Plymouth Rock many times, so be sure to stop by and contemplate the significance of this treasure. As most know, it’s regarded by history as the first piece of land upon which the Pilgrims set foot off the Mayflower in 1620. The size of the rock might surprise you, as it’s smaller than many expect. Portions have cracked off, been chiseled off or were otherwise lost to attrition. Protected for almost a century by a portico, or pillared canopy, Plymouth Rock is part of Pilgrim Memorial State Park. It—along with Mayflower II docked nearby—remains the symbol of the very birth of documented American history.
Mayflower II and Plimoth Plantation
Mayflower II was built in England in 1955-56 off the original ship’s blueprint. Handmade out of oak with canvas sails, the 106-foot-long, 25-foot-wide craft replicates the original to the smallest known detail. The ship is open to tours during which visitors mingle with well-researched actors playing roles of selected Mayflower passengers and crew. They won’t answer if you ask where to find the best pizza in Plymouth or if they follow the Boston Red Sox. But they will answer if you have how they tolerate the appalling ship conditions or, given those conditions, they regret leaving England—the religious persecution notwithstanding. (If you really want a pizza suggestion, your contemporary tour guides on board might be willing to help.)
Mayflower II is one exhibit of Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution. The “settlers” and “Wampanoags” you see in the festival pavilions are a contingent of actors who normally portray personalities here in the 1627 English Village and Wampanoag Homesite. In addition to experiencing these highly detailed exhibits, you can visit the Nye Barn, home to now-rare breeds of livestock prevalent in the 17th century, and also the Craft Center, Plimoth Grist Mill and more.
Plimouth Plantation, in Plymouth about 3 miles from waterfront and festival activities, is open from March to the end of November including during the festival.
Understanding Thanksgiving in historical perspective will make you appreciate the holiday even more when you return home and gather around the table with friends and loved ones. So consider this unique vacation suggestion. You’ll be thankful you did.