A Happy Thanksgiving to You

There is a tweet going around that alerts Americans on the eve of Thanksgiving that “White people are rejoicing about the annihilation of an entire race of humans on Thanksgiving.”

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This is not new: Linda Coombs, program director of the Aquinnah Cultural Center said in 1997, “Thanksgiving is celebrated at the expense of Native Peoples who had to give up their lands and culture for America to become what it is today.”

Which would be awful, it it were true. I will show here why it is not, even if by so doing I may draw the wrath of progressives and conservatives alike.

Here, history must intrude on what we all think we know. According to James W. Baker, Senior Historian at Plimoth Plantation:

The reason that we have so many myths associated with Thanksgiving is that it is an invented tradition. It doesn’t originate in any one event. It is based on the New England puritan Thanksgiving, which is a religious Thanksgiving, and the traditional harvest celebrations of England and New England and maybe other ideas like commemorating the pilgrims. All of these have been gathered together and transformed into something different from the original parts.

And it is not just Thanksgiving itself, but the religious beliefs of those early settlers.

These were protestants and they didn’t celebrate Christmas because [*Warning* War on Christmas *Warning*] they thought Christmas was a Pagan holiday (it is). When a group of newly arriving (and younger) non-pilgrim settlers tried to organize a ball game, Governor William Bradford took away their bats and balls. And Roger Williams, who believed in a wall of separation between church and state as well as in the rights of Native peoples, was kicked out on account of his outrageous beliefs and went to Rhode Island.

Early American history is a mess. It’s not what most of us believe and it’s certainly not what Republicans want us to believe.

The First Thanksgiving allegedly took place in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts, after the European settlers’ first harvest in 1621. While this has gone down in American lore as “the first Thanksgiving” it is not the first Thanksgiving. It is merely the first “thanksgiving” celebration on these shores by Europeans.

As always where American history is concerned, there is more to argue about than to agree on. I wouldn’t be writing this post otherwise.

They key here is that when Native American Wampanoags and Europeans gathered food for that fateful meal, they were gathering good for a traditional harvest festival. What they ate was a far from traditional meal of deer, corn, shellfish, and roasted meat.

This is our primary source of information on the event, in Mourt’s Relation, – A Relation or Journal of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Settled at Plimoth in New England, London: 1622) by Edward Winslow and William Bradford:

Mourt's_Relation_1622Our 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 fruits 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 amongst 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.”

On a less happy note, historians have pointed out that one of the reasons Massasoit and the Wampanoags were willing to welcome the Europeans as friends is that European diseases had already ravaged them and left them weak in relation to their neighbors the Narragansett, and they needed allies.[1]

I say “thanksgiving” because it is a matter of record, though probably of small matter practically in a world where perception is reality, that the actual first Thanksgiving as a religious festival did not take place until 1623, when the colonists thanked their God for deliverance from a drought. The first Thanksgiving was about rain.

Context is everything.

There is a lot of irony in remembering Thanksgiving as a day of genocide. Certainly, though the process of genocide was underway elsewhere, at the time Plymouth settlers and Natives gathered, there was peace between them. This was not Game of Thrones, or even English history, where guests were invited to a feast and then massacred (as happened elsewhere in the 1620s when Englishmen invited Indians to talk peace and then served them poisoned liquor).

However affairs between red and white finally ended, and they did not end happily for Native Americans, the context of the meal in question was one of peace and friendship.

As so often happens, time conflates events and in 1841, in reprinting Mourt’s Relation, Alexander Young misidentified the 1621 feast as the “first Thanksgiving, and in 1846, Sarah Josepha Hale repeated his mistake in a magazine she published. And here we are.

Ironically also, when one thinks of building a nation on the enslavement of people, it was while in the midst of a war to free the slaves that Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a Thanksgiving holiday on November 26, 1863. And even then, he declared two thanksgivings that year, one for Gettysburg in August, and the day in November for “general blessings.”

These weren’t our Thanksgivings. It was Franklin Delano Roosevelt who, in 1939 and at the behest of the National Retail Dry Goods Association, made Thanksgiving an official holiday on the fourth Thursday of November of every year. Ironically, capitalist Republicans hated the idea and called it “Franksgiving” (coined by Atlantic City mayor Thomas D. Taggart, Jr.).

A final irony perhaps: We think of the Pilgrims as a group fleeing religious persecution, and though there is truth to this, we forget the capitalistic origins of their very presence on these shores, and their very wealthy backers in Europe expecting to make a profit off their new colonies.

So today we have an official holiday melded onto a misremembered event from two centuries before and a religious festival conflated with a harvest festival. Both, ultimately, driven by capitalism.

Underneath it all, however, is the old harvest festival and people being thankful for what they have. Whatever the motivations of those early colonists, one, or even two meals should not color a tradition that far predates the arrival of Europeans on these shores.

They still have harvest festivals in England, after all, where those colonists originated and it is even called, variously, Harvest Festival, Harvest Home, Harvest Thanksgiving or Harvest Festival of Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving isn’t the problem, or even the cause of the problem, or even directly related to the problem of the genocide of Native Americans. It isn’t about that at all. That genocide occurred, and it is one of many shameful episodes in our history we should never forget. But Thanksgiving, however commercial it may have become (this is America, the world’s capitalist bastion, after all), is, at its heart, still that ancient, pre-Christian harvest festival, which, by its very nature, is religious.

And that is how I, though city-bound and divorced from the cycles of nature, celebrate it, and why I celebrate it. I have plenty of other days to mourn what was done to Native Americans and to enslaved African Americans. A better solution by far would be an official day of mourning or remembrance for these events, and if you really want to throw things now, how about Columbus Day?

But that’s another post. So for now, a Happy (Heathen) Thanksgiving from your surly old son of Odin. Take that as you will, but I mean it with heartfelt thanks for all that I have and for each and every one of you.


[1] Scott Weidensaul, The First Frontier: The Forgotten History of Struggle, Savagery, & Endurance in Early America. HMH Books, 2011.

Image: “Thanksgiving-Brownscombe” by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe – Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal http://www.lakenhal.nl/persberichtendetail.php?id=144. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

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