Thanksgiving Cosmic Coincidence

This map shows the southwestern sky at dusk on Nov. 24 in 1621, the year of the first Thanksgiving. Stellarium
This map shows the southwestern sky at dusk on Nov. 24 in 1621, the year of the first Thanksgiving. Stellarium

Thursday is Thanksgiving, a feast first celebrated by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians at the end of harvest in 1621. It lasted three days and was attended by 90 Native Americans and 53 Pilgrims. Waterfowl, turkey, corn, lobster and venison were among the the entrees. We know it happened in 1621 but it’s unclear exactly when. Best estimates put the date between late September and mid-November.

We also don’t know if it was clear any of those evenings but had it been, both the pious and the party crowds would have looked up after sundown and spied two bright planets in the evening sky — Venus, low in the southwest in eastern Sagittarius (a.k.a. the “Teapot”), and Mars higher up in the south in Capricornus. Sound familiar?

This map shows the sky on Thursday evening, Nov. 24, 2016. The view is nearly identical despite the dates being 395 years apart. Stellarium
This map shows the sky on Thursday evening, Nov. 24, 2016. The view is nearly identical to that of 1621 despite the dates being 395 years apart. Stellarium

Both planets but especially Mars are in nearly the same locations this Thanksgiving, some 395 years later. The ambling ways of the planets with their various orbital periods just happened to synch up, connecting 1621 and 2016 in delightful cosmological fashion. Fun to know that you can look up tomorrow evening and see the evening planets just as the Pilgrims Wampanoag did so long ago.

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe
“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” (1914) by Jennie A. Brownscombe

And the remarkably similar past and current positions didn’t just hold for a few days but throughout the fall then as now. I wish I could say Jupiter and Saturn were also in their same locations, but they missed the sync boat. Instead, our ancestors saw them shine together from Gemini instead of their current locations in Virgo and Ophiuchus.

George Washington created the first Thanksgiving Day in 1789 and Abraham Lincoln fixed the date as the last Thursday in November, and that’s when we’ve been celebrating it ever since. Orbits, cycles, holidays — round and round we go.