It was early in the evening in the autumn of 1621. The inhabitants of the new settlement of Plymouth were busily preparing for the great Thanksgiving feast which was to be held during the next few days. Many of the Native Americans who had befriended the Pilgrims during the past, harsh year were invited to celebrate their survival with food and festivities.
Although it was only four in the afternoon, the light in the small, basically one-room homes was almost non-existent. In order to maintain as much heat as possible in the twelve houses which had been built during the past year, the few, tiny windows were covered with wooden shutters. Natural light just was not available. Artificial light was necessary, not only to prepare for the upcoming fest, but also for everyday chores. The candles from England were limited, but the industrious women of the Plymouth colony quickly made their own tapers, and the candlelight was soon shining from the tops of various pieces of furniture. The candles were made from tallow and beeswax scented with bayberry. The wicks came from cotton spun by the women of the household.
The first candlesticks the Pilgrims developed were extremely primitive being created from root vegetables such as turnips and potatoes. The base of the vegetable was planed flat and a circular hole was cut in the top into which the candle was inserted. Wall-hung candleholders, known as sconces, frequently had polished metal backs to reflect and add to the light.
Candles were practically worthless out of doors in Plymouth, but the Pilgrims quickly copied the pine tree torches which were developed by the neighboring Indians. The resin found in the dried branches of the pine tree, especially in the knots, kept these short pieces of branch lit for a substantial length of time. The heart of the pine limb also contained more resin, or pitch, than the rest of the wood. This part was shaved into short lengths by the poorer Pilgrim families and used in place of the more expensive candles. Baskets made of metal containing burning pine knots, and hung in strategic locations, actually became our first street lamps.
Although sufficient light was not available for the first Thanksgiving preparations, the celebration was such a success that it is now repeated on a yearly basis. But how much more enjoyable the feast is now with our improved lighting. Now for the theatrically minded, think of how much fun it would be to highlight the turkey with a pin spot and spotlight the other dishes with modern battery operated candles so that we can easily see every scrumptious morsel on the table.