Will The Real Thanksgiving Please Stand Up?
This holiday is one of my favorites. What’s to dislike about giving thanks for the good things we have, to spend time with friends and family, and of course to celebrate good food? Unlike other American observant days, this special day has not been heavily commercialized; in fact, it sadly seems to be going extinct as retailers squeeze it between the twin profit juggernauts of Halloween and especially Christmas.
When it comes to Thanksgiving, there appears to be three main approaches towards its celebration: the traditional view, the historical view, or lastly the secular view. Which one we choose may depend on our worldview, our perspective, or how complete our information is about this holiday. Only a few other countries celebrate this type of holiday, including Canada, a city in the Netherlands (Leiden, where the settlers originated from), Grenada (due to the 1983 American invasion), and Liberia. (2)
The traditional view presents a narrative of the first Thanksgiving celebration occurring between the Pilgrims in 1621 and the Wampanoag Native Indians who had befriended them. According to this narrative, it was a ceremony with religious overtones modeled after the harvest festivals of Europe. Squanto became a great companion of the Pilgrims and helped with the survival of the settlement, and the colonists were finally able to worship freely.
This simplistic traditional view of friendship and harmony however does not match the history of what really occurred. First, the settlers did not refer to themselves as “pilgrims”. They called themselves “saints”, “separatists” or included the label from the later arrival of “Puritans”. This term "Pilgrim" was applied to them nearly 150 years later when the colonists became a symbol of American morality and the nobler aspects of the Christian faith. (1) The colonists’ belief system instilled in them that any land that was ‘unimproved’ was wild, and thus needed to be tamed, including the American Indians which many considered heathens. The colonists held to a literal interpretation of scriptures and wanted to establish a theocracy, a ‘Holy Kingdom’ in this new land. For example, Catholics were banned, dissenters were banished, and four Quakers were hanged between 1659 - 1661 for repeatedly returning to the colony despite their earlier expulsions. (4)
A few days after the colonists landed, about 16 of of them “found” a cache of corn, took it, and then returned a few days later with a larger group to look for more. They found 10 more bushels of corn and took those. They also “discovered” several Native Indian graves, took “the prettiest things away” from a child’s grave and took “some of the best things away with us” from two Indian dwellings. There is no restitution record known and the Indians did not forget the desecration of the graves nor the ransacking of several dwellings. (1,5)
The first to contact the settlers was Samoset, an eastern Abenaki chief. He was scouting the settlement for Massasoit, head of the Wampanoag territory. Samoset brought Squanto, as both he and Samoset spoke some English. Squanto agreed to live among the settlers. Massasoit did not trust Squanto’s loyalty and set up a family to live near the colony to watch both the colonists and also Squanto. Later, Massasoit would consider Squanto a traitor and even order him killed. (1) When the Native Indians heard gunshots one day, they gathered 90 men (no women and children) and went to investigate. When they learned that the colonists were not preparing for war but for a celebration, they decided to join them. The Native Americans provided most of the food, including five deer and lots of turkeys. The colonists had barely survived and had little food to contribute. Neither trusted the other - the Europeans considered the Native Indians lost heathens or instruments of the devil and the Indians had seen the colonists steal their seed corn and desecrate their graves. The three day visit was more for discussing politics and alliances rather than friendships. (1) Indeed, they would not become friends. A few short decades later, they were at war. In 1637 English soldiers massacred 700 Pequot men, women and children at Mystic Fort, burning many alive. The Connecticut and Massachusetts Bay Colony observed a day of Thanksgiving commemorating the massacre. By 1675 there were 50,000 colonists in the area and they named it “New England”. Metacom, a son of Massasoit who had helped save the settlers from starvation, led a rebellion against the colonists only to be killed. Shortly after his death, the Plymouth Colony declared a day of Thanksgiving for the English victory over the Indians. (1)
The Continental Congress proclaimed a national holiday but it was left up to the states to decide if and how to celebrate the holiday. It wasn't until 1863 - almost 200 years after the Plymouth Colony celebrated its victory over the Native Indians - that Lincoln finally designated Thanksgiving as a national holiday, and it was another 79 years until Franklin Rosevelt established it the fourth Thursday in November. (2, 3) It is no coincidence that these presidents used the holiday to rally American patriotism during two major wars, as the label “In God We Trust” was also to be used later for the same purposes during or after two great wars. Lincoln is often quoted by those promoting the traditional view of Thanksgiving as supporting believers and their faith. However, in private correspondence he said just the opposite. For example he wrote, "The Bible is not my book nor Christianity my profession. I could never give assent to the long, complicated statements of Christian dogma." (6) And, "My earlier views at the unsoundness of the Christian scheme of salvation and the human origin of the scriptures, have become clearer and stronger with advancing years and I see no reason for thinking I shall ever change them." (7)
The secular view should be the one that is embraced. It does not acknowledge the traditional view, rejecting it as too rich in legend and mythologized, often told with an evangelical agenda. The historical view is a sad one, as it is hardly proper to give thanks to mark the horrible destruction that had already befallen the Native Indians and the disease and war which would continue to destroy their communities and all that they held dear. It was hardly a day of Thanksgiving for the early colonists. They lost over half of their numbers, with 38 of the nearly 100 succumbing in the first three months of 1621 alone. (1,5) It is disingenuous to thank God for the few that survived while ignoring that He did not protect so many others from a slow, painful death soon after they arrived. And one can only imagine the “Pilgrims” thanking God for all the corn they “found”. In contrast, the secular view of this holiday is inclusive to all, offers a day of thanks for the good things in our lives, and honors the past by attempting to view it accurately and honestly.
So, let’s give thanks for family, friends, and what we have even if many of us are struggling in our lives. Enjoy the holiday without the religious spin, which not only is erroneous, but ignores the historical reality of it’s beginnings.
1. Deconstructing the Myths of “The First Thanksgiving”
2. Thanksgiving Day
4. America’s True History of Religious Tolerance
5. Pilgrims (Plymouth Colony)
6. Abraham Lincoln, quoted by Joseph Lewis in “Lincoln The Freethinker”.
7. Abraham Lincoln to Judge Wakefield
First posted November, 2010. Revised Nov. 2011.