Thanksgiving in Myth, Reality and American Dreaming

2 min read
Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash
Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash

Most Americans have the story of the First Thanksgiving indelibly imprinted in their minds in childhood.  It’s the tale of the immigrant Pilgrims joining together with the indigenous Native American “Indians” to share in a celebration of a successful harvest. It’s a heart-warming and head-soothing story to take the edge off the swiftly approaching snows of winter.

The Disneyesque myth of Thanksgiving is, of course, far removed from the reality of “Pilgrim”-“Indian” relations in 1621. What is known, more historically accurately, is that the “Separatists” from Holland (who were not persecuted Christians pursuing religious freedom, but fundamentalists seeking to establish a Christian theocracy) shared in a three-day end-of-harvest festival with about 90 members of the Wampanoag tribe, who tilled fields just across the river from the “Plimouth” settlement.  No invitation was extended. The native neighbors simply invited themselves, probably as a diplomatic gesture.   

The event wasn’t referred to as “Thanksgiving” until 200 years later in the 1830s.  President Lincoln made it an official national holiday in 1863 as a “giving thanks” for Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg.  An uglier possible origin theory notes that a “Day of Thanksgiving” was declared in the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies in 1637 to celebrate the massacre of the Pequot people that ended the “Pequot War.”

Turkey probably wasn’t on the menu in 1621 and there was definitely no pie. (No flour for crusts; no oven for baking.) Goose or duck was the main course, along with fresh venison. (The Wampanoag brought five deer.) There was pumpkin, succotash, cornmeal bread and cranberries, but no sweet potatoes.

Whatever its true origin, Thanksgiving is now a foundational story of America and, like all such stories, it is more important in its current perception amongst all those affected by it, than in its historical accuracy. America’s indigenous tribes of peoples obviously have a very different view of this “celebration” of Europeans finding a new home in America. The First Thanksgiving is neither a true story nor a big lie. It remains an aspirational tale for the America we dream of achieving – the last best hope for a land where equality and opportunity is shared in, like a grand celebratory banquet, by all.

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