What is Thanksgiving, and why do we celebrate it?
The element of this holiday that always confounded me was our celebration of the Pilgrims. We’re all aware of the romaticized, elementary school version of the story: A group of well-meaning and wholly unprepared individuals seek farming assistance from selfless Indians and – after reaping the rewards of their labors – invite those Indians to a feast in celebration. They have buckles on their hats, a hitch in their step, and the freedom of religion that they’d been seeking all along.
It’s like a cartoon… which is usually how elementary school students have that information delivered to them.
Unfortunately for Charlie Brown, the real story is a little more… well… real.
The “Pilgrims” were actually a combination of three different groups of people, all of whom left England and Holland for various reasons. Yes, the main group – the self-titled “Saints” – were religious separatists seeking freedoms not accorded to them under the Church of England. There were also families seeking economic independence (called the “Strangers” by the aforementioned “Saints”) and a handful of crew members contracted to work in the new colony. The self-imposed immediacy of their departure from Holland was severely undermined by the seaworthiness of their first craft. In fact, the Speedwell leaked so badly that they attempted to set sail twice in August, the second time making it 300 miles out to sea before finally turning back and packing onto a single ship, the Mayflower.
Having been blown off course by unfavorable winds, the group of 102 settlers made landfall in November of 1620 on the tip of Cape Cod, an established and well-known fishing ground. Deeming the area unsuitable for settlement, it took them nearly 6 weeks to find the safe harbor of Plymouth, which was also an established (and named) location. The delayed departure and careful probing of the coastline, while prudent, meant that they began construction of their settlement at Plymouth in late December or early January.
For those of you who have experienced New England winters, you know all too well the frozen ground, fridgid temperatures, and overall scarcity that these people faced. They, constructed basic shelters, and scraped what little living they could from the barren landscape. With the help of Tisquantum (Squanto), an English-speaking Pawtuxet, the settlers were able to strike a protection deal with the Wampanoag. This relatively peaceful group of Native peoples worked with the settlers for protection and survival, and was eventually able to teach them how to hunt, forage and farm according to seasonal patterns. Unfortunately, this assistance did not come early enough to save the 50 settlers who perished before the onset of spring.
In fact, some of them left as soon as they could. Captain Christopher Jones, who had been forced to winter with the settlers due to the poor health of his crew, packed up and left by April. The remaining settlers lived in relative peace with the Wampanoag, providing assistance and protection for each other to defend against rival tribes and more hostile groups of Natives, not all of whom were so easy on the settlers.
When the harvest was brought in, the settlers were so elated at the prospect of having stores of food that they threw a traditional harvest celebration, or a “Harvest Home”.
Harvest festivals are traditional celebrations that began nearly with the dawn of agriculture. The festivals are meant to celebrate a bountiful harvest (I mean, it’s in the name), allow for a period of respite from the hard work of the farmers, and pay tribute to the deity of their choosing. According the accounts of the 1621 feast, they were clearly celebrating having “got in their harvest” and had sent villages out to hunt for fowl, presumably turkeys, ducks or geese, all of which were in abundance in the area. Additionally, it’s believed that the Native Americans were invited (as commonly conveyed in the elementary school version) only due to an accidental encounter between the hunters and Wampanoag as they were seeking game for the feast.
Regardless, it’s reported firsthand that “many Indians” including “their greatest king Massasoit” were in attendance for the festival, which lasted three days, and included feasting, games, competitions, and gift-giving.
But this was not a “thanksgiving.” According to tradition, a “thanksgiving” is a declared day of community prayer and pious humiliation – essentially an additional day of the Sabbath – where people are expected to come together as one united group to “thank God for His special Providence.” “Thanksgivings” were only proclaimed by religious or social leaders on very specific occasions, to thank God for important occurrences. Devout worshipers would have considered it inappropriate to celebrate on such days, choosing rather to worship in accordance with their beliefs. In addition, it would have been equally inappropriate to share such a pious day with the native “heathen” population.
A profound example of such a thanksgiving day came when the Continental Congress issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1777, calling for a united day of “solemn thanksgiving and praise.” They encouraged the omission of “servile labor and such recreation” on December 18, 1777 in order to thank god for the Revolution, and for the continued prosperity of the Continental economy.
These proclamations became an annual tradition, though they were never universally celebrated, or even take seriously. One woman who did take thanksgivings seriously – very seriously – was Sarah J. Hale, who you may know as the author of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” She had petitioned presidents for 15-20 years, but it wasn’t until she petitioned Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War that she really gained any traction. Though he didn’t name the holiday the “Great Union Festival of America” as she proposed, on October 3, 1863 he issued a presidential proclamation declaring that Americans should “set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
Coincidentally, Of Plimouth Plantation, the memoirs of Governor William Bradford, had recently been discovered and published. These memoirs became somewhat of a popular phenomenon, and interest in the Pilgrims (as they began being called only AFTER the publication of said memoir) was at an all-time high by the end of the 19th century. Parents and teachers began using the Pilgrims as examples of American fortitude, perseverance and unity in the face of adversity, and in the process, the traditional proclamations of thanksgiving became irreversibly linked to the story of the 1621 harvest festival.
As it happens, the celebration of the holiday evolved, and the meaning was largely lost. And while piety and solemn prayer have largely been replaced by gluttony and football, one element of the tradition, unity, remains largely intact.
So when you celebrate Thanksgiving with your friends, family, significant others, or whomever else you choose to share the day with, I encourage you to not only enjoy the food, drink and entertainment (and by that I mean inebriated elder relatives), but also to remember that the unity of the day is the single element of the traditions (both traditional thanksgivings and harvest festivals alike) that has stood the test of time…and I think that’s something worth celebrating.