Real Thanksgiving Picture
Every year we
gather together to celebrate one of the most beautiful stories of our national history: the Thanksgiving celebration between the early New England settlers and the native inhabitants of this vast and plentiful land. As we all learned and enacted in grade school, through the generosity of the natives, the first Pilgrim settlement in Massachusetts was able to survive, despite the ineptitude of the colonists. To celebrate the harmony flourishing between the two groups, the leaders of the Algonquins and the Puritans had a banquet in which both sides brought food to the table and feasted on the plenty of the land.

That celebration is memorialized in William Bradford's historical account, Of Plymouth Plantation, covering the years 1620-1628:

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 this place did abound when they first came .... And besides water-fowl there was a great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides they had about a peck of 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.

Where, you might ask, are the natives in this account? Where is that happy meeting of two cultures who set aside their differences to praise the creator for his generosity? The story of our Thanksgiving holiday is a an interesting study in the evolution of a national myth – a story that tells us who we want to be as a culture, even if it has little connection to who we have been.

The evolution of that myth has at least four major phases:

I. The harvest festival

Most cultures across the globe have a festivity to celebrate a successful harvest. The Algonquin tribes had one "at which people from many places came to take part in ceremonies related to the yearly cycle of com. They danced, hunted for venison, and played games."1

The Pilgrims in Bradford's account were certainly celebrating a successful season of hunting, fishing, and cultivating which would fortify them through the harsh winter. For this relief from want, they doubtless had a day of thanksgiving. But it was not a particularly special day. The Puritan/Pilgrim year was sprinkled with alternating days of thanksgiving and days of fasting or humiliation. These days were not fixed on the calendar, but instead were announced by the leader of the congregation. "When events were seen to signify the displeasure of the deity" (bad weather, illness, trouble with the Indian tribes), "a day of fasting would be announced; or, if events signified his beneficence (a successful crop, a victory over the Indians), a day of thanksgiving would be proclaimed."2 A meal would be eaten on the thanksgiving days, but no ritual or significance was attached to it. On days of thanksgiving, people ate a meal; on days of fasting, they did not.

Like the Algonquins, the English had harvest celebrations, usually wild, drunken celebrations out in the fields once they were cleared of grain. Over the years, Puritanism, which had tempered the harvest feast, lost its hold and raucousness returned. The festival also moved from country into city. Revolutionary war veterans, calling themselves the Fantastiks, or Fantasticals, paraded in rags of Continental army soldiers and turned military conduct on its head. They ridiculed authority, masqueraded and cross-dressed, begged for treats, got drunk. Well into the 19th century Fantastics, who were militia regulars, dressed as women, poked fun at their superiors and held elaborate parades, especially in New York and Philadelphia. At the end of the parade, they feasted on turkey and drink at an afternoon picnic; fistfights were an added pleasure.3

Our current Thanksgiving celebration has ingredients of all three of these traditions. The notion of a day of thanksgiving comes from the Pilgrim practice of setting aside special days for it. Like the Algonquins, we travel sometimes great distances to participate in the celebration of the bounty God has afforded us. And the Thanksgiving parades, most notably Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in New York are direct descendants of the need to dress up, act silly, and live it up once the harvest work was done. In fact, well into the 1940's children in New York City masqueraded on Thanksgiving Day and went from house to house begging for treats.

So, one strand of the Thanksgiving Day tradition gives us a day of merriment, including a parade, and culminating with a turkey feast. Now to some of the other strands.

II. Sarah Josepha Hale and Abraham Lincoln

Beginning in 1846, Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale, most known as the author of the nursery rhyme "Mary had a Little Lamb" began to lobby state governors for a national celebration of Thanksgiving. As editor of Godey 's Magazine and Lady's Book, she had a wide readership among middle-class women, and her yearly editorials promoting a national celebration of Thanksgiving began to bear fruit. From her perspective, a nationally- sanctioned Thanksgiving celebration would establish the importance of "the gratified hospitality, the obliging civility and unaffected happiness" of the American family. By the mid-nineteenth- century, especially in New England, the lure of the city had taken many a young person away from the family farm. Railroads, commercialism, industrialism, and mounting political tensions over the issue of slavery were transforming the country. Mrs. Hale and many others feared that America was losing its moral center. Many of the dislocations – both moral and geographic – could be repaired by encouraging "fledged birds once more [to fly] back to the mother nest." As long as a self-made man was still an obedient son returning home to Mama for her home-cooked meal, individualism and obligation to family could be reconciled. A Thanksgiving holiday would satisfy a "yearning for a simpler, more virtuous, more public-spirited and wholesome past, located in the New England countryside, not the city." The holiday would promote family solidarity.4

Mrs. Hale's appeals reached the ears of Abraham Lincoln, President of a deeply divided nation, a man who recognized the potential benefits of establishing a type of civil religion through a national holiday. To Mrs. Hale, a return to the family hearth would nostalgically reconnect the country to its simpler, more rural, more virtuous past.5 To Lincoln, a national day of thanksgiving had implications for the future. It would "help build consensus about the worthiness and longevity of the Union." It would provide an opportunity "for a grateful nation to praise God for blessings bestowed, for the many years of 'peace and prosperity,' for the growth in national power and population 'as no other nation has ever grown.'"6 And so, in October of 1863 Lincoln issued a proclamation establishing the last Thursday in November as an annual national day of Thanksgiving.

Now we have the beginnings of Thanksgiving as the biggest travel holiday in the United States. Children return from far and wide to celebrate the magic of the American family and the American government. But where are the Pilgrims? Where are the Indians? Where is the commemoration of our nation's first autumn in Massachusetts?

Real Thanksgiving Picture
III. The Immigrants

After the Civil War, and especially between 1890 and 1920, immigrants, many of them Catholic and Jewish in contrast to the Protestant Pilgrims, poured into American ports. To differentiate themselves from these unwashed hordes, the English-ancestry Protestant elite held up as respectable ancestors, their Pilgrim forebears, people of "intense faith, imagination, and courage."7

For the immigrants, the Pilgrims were inspiring models; like them, the Pilgrims were "refugees from religious persecution uprooted from their homeland."8 In schools, teachers stressed the momentousness of the landing on Plymouth Rock and eager students saw the possibilities inherent in their own landing on these shores. Because Americans "had to be made," rituals were established to aid and encourage the transformation from foreigners with customs "threatening to American values" into good immigrants sold on the American dream.9 The Thanksgiving holiday allowed peoples from a myriad of cultures all to be Americans, at least for a day. Just as the celebration of communion lies at the heart of Christian ritual, so the participation in a national meal – turkey, dressing, cranberries, sweet potatoes, pumpkins – lay at the heart of transforming an alien into a native.

By the early 20th century, Thanksgiving was an increasingly important American ritual; the country, through its families, could change the world. But one last character in the national story is still missing: the Indian.

IV. Giving Thanks Through Violence

After the Civil War, when the Thanksgiving holiday was official, pictures of the Indians and Pilgrims were violent images – "a wounded Pilgrim or an armed sneaking Indian." Never did they depict the Pilgrims slaughtering the Indians, though thanksgivings in 1637 and 1676 celebrated success in the war against the Wampaneogs and their allies. To the Pilgrims, the Indians were a trial sent by God to test his chosen people, and their triumphs over the natives evidence of God's favor. Immediately after the Civil War, soldiers were sent to the American West to deal once and for all with the "Indian problem": recalcitrant obstructions to the manifest destiny of the newly restored Union. In the words of General Philip Henry Sheridan, "The only good Indian is a dead Indian." Pictures of harmony between Pilgrims and Indians began to appear in the 20th century, once the Indians had "been completely vanquished, their land appropriated," and their cultures bludgeoned to refashion these lost souls into Christians.10

Rituals such as Thanksgiving are effective cultural tools, as one can see in their ability to transform the immigrant experience. But they are useful in other ways too. "Since ritual is a good form for conveying a message as if it were unquestionable, it often is used to communicate those very things which are most in doubt."11 With a country at war with itself, a war which pitted families members against one another, Abraham Lincoln established a ritual celebration memorializing the unity of both the country and the family. Ritual and ceremony "can make it appear that there is no conflict, only harmony, no disorder, only order."12 The 20th century insertion of the Indian into the Thanksgiving celebration of generosity serves exactly this purpose. It memorializes a fantasy of the good relations between Natives and conquerors, not the reality of 400 years of exploitation and extermination. America wants to be known as a moral nation and the image of the white man and the native peaceably sharing God's bounty on a lovely autumn afternoon secures that truth for us.

As adults, we can see that there is certainly some hypocrisy manifested in the image of the happy celebration between Pilgrim and Indian. That nostalgic "lost past" never existed because our forbears never wanted it to exist. But for millions of children, reenactments of that gathering are some of their most vivid school memories. Unlike their ancestors, they view the Pilgrims and Indians as equals and can delight in playing either role. I began by saying that national myths say something about what we want to be as a nation. And the picture of that lovely autumn afternoon has said to us at least since 1950 that we want to be a nation that includes all peoples and respects them equally. Mrs. Hale was vainly trying to capture a sugar- coated, nonexistent past. So perhaps we should adopt Abraham Lincoln's gaze toward the future. In the midst of a brutal war, he wanted us to believe ourselves one nation, and indeed we became one. Perhaps if we believe hard enough in the image of peaceful coexistence with all the inhabitants of our land, it will propel us toward actually becoming a nation which provides hearty sustenance to ALL its peoples.

Source: Research & text by Dr. Margaret O'Shaughnessey

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