Thanksgiving is the most Norman Rockwell of all our holidays. Rockwell’s painting shows us a mythologized past of America in the middle of the twentieth century. For some of us it’s not far off the mark, but for most, it’s an America which never existed. Yet like America, the holiday is a melting pot of traditions, taking its place in the myth-making process of our nation, reaching for its roots all the way back to the beginnings.
A country’s myths can serve many purposes. They can inspire us to try harder, to reach for ideals which got us through tough times in the past. They can make learning and remembering history easier by dispensing of details, even important details all in the interest of simplification. And finally, they can serve as propaganda, particularly when combined with that last point. We’ve certainly strayed from the ideals of the first Thanksgiving, because those ideals we grew up with for the most part were the result of fiction.
The idea that the Pilgrims sat stoic in their black and white costumes, leg-wrestling with Native Americans in peace, harmony and feasting on turkey and pumpkin pie is well, bullshit. In truth, Thanksgiving is as much turkey and shopping as Miles Standish and Squanto.
Back in the days of Henry VIII and the English Reformation, the puritans got it in their heads to eliminate all holidays associated with things Papal, and replace them with days of thanksgiving and fasting, to celebrate days of special importance – those days when God reached down and plucked them from adversary.
The first day of Thanksgiving on the North American continent can be traced to St. Augustine, Florida on September 8, 1565 by the Spaniards, as well as other celebrations in Texas and the Virginia colony, all preceding the traditional first Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621. These celebrations we are told don’t count, as they didn’t lead to a sustained tradition. A charge with could also be levelled at the Plymouth celebration as well.
That celebration held in Plymouth, or Plimoth Plantation as it was also known at the time, wasn’t even a Thanksgiving celebration. Instead it was a harvest celebration, likely held in October, to celebrate the fact that the men and women of the Mayflower Compact had managed to turn out a decent crop, greatly improving their chances of surviving their second winter in the New World, after the first nearly decimated their population. Since it couldn’t have been done without the Native Americans of the area, they came along for the party. The Native Americans tell a somewhat different story, making their presence more of gate crashers bearing gifts than invitees.
There are only two known descriptions of this event. The first, by Edward Winslow states “And God be praised we had a good increase… Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”
The governor of the colony, William Bradford has this to add … “They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which is place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.”
As Bradford states, there was “a great store” of turkeys, though a keen eye will note this isn’t in relation to the celebration, in fact, Bradford’s account was lost for decades afterwards, and by then, through an entirely different route, Thanksgiving and turkeys went arm in wing. That Bradford sent a fowling party likely indicates that they men were in search of less common birds, more tasty and more in line with a feast, than the ubiquitous and somewhat gamey wild turkey. The main course it would appear, would have been venison, as well as cod, eel and other seafood. No cakes, no pumpkin pies and no sweet potatoes either. Much to my chagrin, they didn’t wear black hats with buckles, as that fashion didn’t come into being till decades later. In addition, they were rather fond of colors, as any visitor to Plimoth Plantation today will soon realize.
It should be mentioned that more than half of the original colonists weren’t separatists, therefore not bound to the strict love of God mentality that we think of when we think of the colony. This led not only to internal strife, but an abandonment by those looking for religious freedom, as opposed to the religious oligarchy that the Pilgrims sought. Still, it’s a safe bet that a lot of giving thanks to God for the harvest was done, even as the Native Americans must have looked on in wonder, and the non-Separatists might well have helped themselves to an extra store of beer.
The first actual proclaimed day of Thanksgiving took place in 1623, and it doesn’t appear that there was much in the way of feasting, nor were the Native Americans invited. Instead it was likely a day of fasting, certainly a day of solemnity and prayer, to give thanks to the almighty following an urgent plea for his help earlier that summer. The exact reasons vary – some saying God bestowed his grace and lifted the drought which threatened the crops and their survival. Others say his grace was bestowed because that summer the colony gave up on socialism and moved to a free market economy. As any Republican will eagerly tell you, the supreme being always gives a thumbs up when a people give up socialism for capitalism.
Yet another Thanksgiving was held it appears in 1637, to celebrate the return of many of the company’s men who had traveled to Mystic, Connecticut to lend aid in the Indian Wars there. While it appears the the Plimoth contingent arrived too late to take part, this conflict included the massacre of over 700 Pequot men, women and children. Governor Winthrop proclaimed the day to give thanks for their great victory, and this one did include a feast, rather than a fast. Native Americans have held a National Day of Mourning since 1970 to remember the horrors inflicted upon them since this first Thanksgiving, with the main celebration being held on Cole’s Hill, overlooking Plymouth Rock. Squanto, it will be remembered, was the Indian who came to the colonists and taught them farming, fishing and hunting, and without his help, as well as that of the Wampanoag tribe under the chief Massosoit, they likely would never survive. Squanto was actually of the Patuxet tribe, who once lived in the exact spot that the Separatists made their home. Squanto had been away for many years, as a slave to the Spaniards, and on his return, he found the Patuxets had been wiped out. Had they still been there, the Pilgrims would likely have been annihilated. Instead, they found the Wampanoag. To show our gratitude, we waited until 1987 to formally recognize them as a legitimate tribe. Hence in one small part, the National Day of Mourning.
Periodically, our leaders as well as individual states would proclaim a day of Thanksgiving, until George Washington proclaimed in 1789, that we as a nation, should observe “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God.” The holiday came and went until 1863 when Abraham Lincoln set the date as the last Thursday in November, who continued with the religious theme of thanking God, and praying.
Following the Civil War, traditions started loosening up and games and feasting were becoming common occurrences in conjunction with the holiday in New England. As shooting was one of the sports involved, and wild turkey plentiful, turkeys once more stumbled into the story. Pumpkin pie was introduced into the canon, though some dishes, such as the surprisingly tasty pigeon pie didn’t make the cut. Football as well made its first appearance in relation to Thanksgiving in the late 1800s, on both a collegiate and a professional level.
Ironically, Thanksgiving wasn’t associated with the Pilgrims until the very end of the century, and the beginning of the twentieth century. By then the story was little more than myth, and a way of teaching children about the importance of giving thanks for what you have, and to create an idealized version of the founding of our country.
President Roosevelt moved the date up a week in 1941, in part at the urging of the Federated Department Stores – later Macy’s, to give merchants a longer period of time to sell Americans good for Christmas, in hopes that would boost sales and help America out of the Great Depression. Republicans howled in outrage at Roosevelt, a Democrat, for besmirching the name of Lincoln by changing his date, and also for screwing with the football schedule, which was set well in advance and was scheduled to end each year on Thanksgiving Day. Eventually Congress stepped in and returned the holiday to the last Thursday of the month, until malcontents in the Senate changed it to the fourth Thursday in November, which had the effect of moving the date up when November has five Thursdays.
And with that, the modern holiday of Thanksgiving was pretty much in place, being a hodgepodge of feasting on turkey and pumpkin pie, a nearly complete misunderstanding of the Pilgrims of the Massachusetts colony, football, Abraham Lincoln and finally, the official beginning of the Christmas shopping season. If you factor in advertising dollars and the amount of time spent in stores, it could easily be argued that Black Friday now overshadows Thanksgiving in the United States.
The one aspect of Thanksgiving which is increasingly disappearing is that of giving thanks to providence for getting us through another year, another crisis, and the reverence of dedicating one special day to this purpose. Instead, the act of giving thanks becomes more abstract, more personal, and less of a national moment, where we all come together. Which is a shame, as after the past year, I think the fact that we haven’t killed each other yet is something to be thankful for.