If your early education years were similar to mine then at some point you likely were involved in the construction of a Thanksgiving diorama. Your teacher fed you all the same material about how the “pilgrims” had a big feast with their good Indian friend Squanto, where they all sat around a table festooned with corn, squash, pumpkin, bread pudding, and of course, turkey.
If you’re married to that imagery, may I suggest that you read no further. If you like to know the real story, then keep your eyes affixed to this post.
See, all the stuff we’ve been spoon-fed about Thanksgiving amounts to nothing more than our own version of American civil religion. Much like Native Americans have deep-rooted beliefs based upon their legends and spiritual centers, or the Norse, Romans, or Greeks, who all had their own gods—so we have this mythic legend of how our “first settlers” interacted with the true first settlers. There are a number of versions of the first “thanksgiving,” ranging from the Spaniards in St. Augustine, Florida, to the more widely familiar thanksgiving at Plymouth in 1621. Most of the other celebrations are far more plausible than the Plymouth of legend. And yet we stick to it. While a feast did occur with the Plymouth separatists and the local natives, it sure didn’t include turkey, bread of any sort, or pumpkin pies. They had no oven for baking bread or pies, and they didn’t hunt for fowl such as turkey at the time. What they did have was duck, geese, venison, fish, lobster, clams, seal, swan, berries, dried fruit, pumpkin, squash, and a host of other vegetables. You read that right. They had swan and seal, too.
This will win me no vegetarian friends, but I think culturally we did the right thing by choosing a bird as stupid as the turkey. If a turkey had knuckles, it wouldn’t have knuckles, if you catch my drift. The bird is so strikingly stupid it will actually allow itself to drown by staring up when it rains. This is one time when I can truthfully state stupid never tasted so good!
Myth: The gathering at Plymouth was held by the Pilgrims.
Reality: The Europeans who’d settled around Plymouth so famously in 1620 were pilgrims in the religious sense, but we didn’t refer to them at “the Pilgrims” until the mid to late 1880’s. These folks did, in fact, come to these shores upon the Mayflower, but not everyone aboard the ship was there for religious reasons; those folks weren’t coming over for religious freedoms—they had that in Holland. They essentially didn’t want to become Dutch, preferring to remain British. About two-thirds of the passengers were ordinary people looking to make a fresh start in a new place.
Moreover, the “pilgrims” didn’t actually land at Plymouth. They landed at Provincetown. The notion of the Mayflower arriving at Plymouth Rock is traced back to secondhand testimony given by a 95-year-old man in 1741—over a century after it was supposed to have occured. He recounts the story as one told to him by his father, who himself had arrived in America three years after the Mayflower.
Before setting sail, the separatists had initially considered beginning a colony somewhere in South America. Apparently they’d discounted going to Jamestown, Virginia. Information as to why they wound up at Provincetown is sketchy. The most widely floated hypothesis is that the pilgrims had maps of the New England area which they’d received from Squanto. Many people aren’t aware that Squanto was an interpreter for the settlers. He’d been sold into slavery by the Spaniards who’d first come to our shores, but escaped to England and learned English while there. Squanto was actually far more travelled than the settlers, having crossed the Atlantic up to six times.
They may have also chosen the New England area because a plague had almost completely wiped out the native populations in the area in 1617, so settling would be much easier and more secure. The aversion to Jamestown had more to do with religious conflicts: the Anglican church was well established in Virginia, and the separatists, having already suffered persecution at the hands of the Anglicans, certainly didn’t want to be dominated by them again.
Myth: Thanksgiving was a one-day meal shared amongst some farmers and indians.
Reality: Actually, the initial feast was a week long community affair. Records from the time indicate that somewhere around ninety natives showed up during that time to partake in the celebration. Scholars have largely believed that the feast was not a religious holiday, as the pilgrims would have no tolerance for such festivities during a truly religious time.
Myth: Thanksgiving has been celebrated as a holiday since 1623.
Reality: I’ll give you the gist: Thanksgiving has been celebrated, in one form and time or another, for quite a while. Since the Revolutionary War it has been proclaimed as a day of celebration by individual states at the behest of Congress—and often in different months, ranging from October to as late as January. But it wasn’t made a federal holiday until 1863, courtesy of Abraham Lincoln, the culmination of a seventeen-year letter writing campaign by Sarah Hale.
Here’s an interesting (and related) sidebar:
Ms. Sarah Josepha Hale – 17 Years, A Lamb, and Thomas Edison
Ms. Hale began her campaign for a federally sanctioned holiday of Thanksgiving back in 1846, and resulted in letters to five Presidents of the United States — Zachary Taylor, Millard Filmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln saw the unifying benefit of such a holiday amidst the national stress of the Civil War. His proclamation for the holiday echoed many of the same sentiments as prior presidents and statesmen, espousing the need for the country to take a full day to give thanks “and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” Sarah’s efforts finally came to fruition via Lincoln’s pen in 1863, seventeen years after she began.
Interestingly, up to that point, only two other holidays were recognized at a national level: Washington’s birthday and Indpendence Day.
Sarah Hale is best known as being the woman most responsible for getting Thanksgiving established as a federal holiday. But you may not know that she was also the author of the childrens poem Mary’s Lamb, or as most all of us know it, Mary Had A Little Lamb.
In 1877, at age 89, Hale retired. That same year, Thomas Edison read the first words ever recorded on his latest invention, the phonograph — the opening lines to Mary Had A Little Lamb.
I remember being taught about how all the pilgrims wore black and white, and their clothing had buckles. This is wrong too. Buckles didn’t come into fashion until later in the seventeenth century, and black and white were typically worn on Sundays. Since this was a week-long feast and wasn’t considered a religious function they would wear just about anything but black and white.
And what about their tables manners? Did they pass around food and sample a bit of everything as we do? Take a guess.
Documentation from the time indicates there was something of a pecking order to who-got-to-sit-next-to-what. Seems those individuals in higher social standing got to sit nearest the heftier entrees. They didn’t pass the food around, instead eating whatever was closest to them. The tablecloth did triple duty as a cover for the table, a communal napkin, and was used as a means of picking up hot pieces of food; they didn’t use forks, just spoons, knives, and their fingers. They would have had salt at the table, but not pepper; it would have been used in the cooking process, but not placed upon the table.
Safe to say that our “traditional” Thanksgiving meal is an entirely different affair from the event we claim its ancestral origins from. Yet the principle behind it remains the same. Contemporary society has commercialized it, even to the extent of giving it a distant second billing to the onslaught of the Christmas shopping season. Most major retailers spend far more resources reminding us that Christmas is just around the bend well before Thanksgiving than they ever give to the Autumn Feast holiday. Are we so jaded that we consider Thanksgiving just another hurdle to breach on the way to the capatilistic bacchanal of Christmas? What a shame if so. And shame on us for allowing it to happen—not that I believe for an instant anyone gives a rat’s ass about thinking twice about it. Coporate America has ensured our mindset of the ‘holiday season’ is fixated upon commerce, and not so much about the underlying pleasantries of the holidays. I used to work for an company that claimed to “shut down” for Thanksgiving and Christmas, but in complete truth they would always tell their clients that people were available to work on their case loads during the “holidays”. I grant you, that’s not a unique situation, but it reeks of the same hypocrisy we apply to our celebration of most holidays, but especially those which have deeper roots in familial surroundings and traditions.
Maybe, just maybe, we could allow ourselves to completely detach from our self-involved lives—and perhaps just start with a day like Thanksgiving—and give a modern nod to the separatists who genuinely used the time to give thanks for all their blessings. Perhaps you don’t agree, but I believe our blessings extend well past the plastic in our purses and the display of largesse under a tree.
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