The History That They’re Not Teaching Us or Our Children About Thanksgiving
Hat tip to Jack and Jill Politics.
(The Brits, like Eddie Izzard, are the first to call bullsh*t on our myth-making. Especially the true reasons why we really broke away from the Mother Country.)
Don’t buy that propaganda about the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock. If anything, we should give thanks because Mother Earth, despite all the atrocities against her, is still giving forth her bounty so that people can live, instead of her raising her skirts and shaking us hard off this planet. We should give thanks that brother/father/uncle is back in one piece from the killing fields of Iraq or Afghanistan. We should give thanks that dad or mom still has their job, or a roof over their heads and that the family is not broken or homeless. We should give thanks that sister or cousin is off drugs for five years, or has moved to be closer to family, or that grandma or granddad is still among us in this world.
Abraham Lincoln had a good idea in the middle of the Civil War, but don’t you believe that the Pilgrims created Thanksgiving, or anything like it. Alternative historian Scott Berkun could quickly change your mind. The only thing Thanksgiving and Abe Lincoln have in common is blood, war and suffering.
The success of the Mayflower settlement depended more on smallpox than the Pilgrims. Years before the Mayflower landed, Europeans had already brought smallpox to America, killing most of the indigenous population (An event the Pilgrims called “an act of god”). This made the early settlements possible, and forced the remaining natives (most notably Squanto) to consider cooperation with settlers, teaching them many survival skills. The Pilgrims stole corn and other supplies from natives during their first year.
Half of the Pilgrims died in the first 5 months. They were untrained, unprepared, did not know how to farm or hunt in America, and chose a difficult location for their first settlement (they wandered off course crossing the Atlantic). By the time of the first thanksgiving those still alive were happy not to be dead – the fact that they had food to eat was more than worthy of celebration.
The pilgrims did not eat turkey, mashed potatoes or pecan pie. Thanksgiving was not an official U.S. holiday until the 1860s, and we are celebrating the eating habits of people from the 1860s, not the 1600s. It’s not documented what was eaten on the first Thanksgiving, though it’s pretty certain they ate their meal with their hands.
Thanksgiving is an ancient native concept, not Pilgrim or American. As you’d imagine, the folks who actually knew how to work with the land, the natives, had their own set of customs for giving thanks back to nature: some tribes had 6 festivals every year dedicated to giving thanks, only one of which we know as Thanksgiving.
The Pilgrims were not Puritans. Both groups were radicals who wanted to escape persecution in England. But the Pilgrims were more egalitarian and tolerant – they had non-believers on the Mayflower, and even more in their settlement (they came over later). The Puritans wanted reform, but wanted the Church to change to reflect their views (whereas the Pilgrims abandoned the Church entirely). The Pilgrims were on the Mayflower, but the Puritans didn’t arrive in America until several decades later.
The Indians and Pilgrims did not get along very well. Around the time of the first Thanksgiving, the Plymouth settlement was converted into a fort, hardly an act of thanks or giving. As you’d imagine, the relationship between these two groups was complex, with different skirmishes and crimes by factions on both sides. While there were times of peace, tension grew over the years and led to King Phillip’s War, the end of any pretense of peace, a few decades later.
So when some wingnut relative or friend starts off with too much beer or cocktails in their belly about how lucky we are and the freedom we enjoy, set his ass down with some facts. You may start a mini-riot between the dressing and the sweet potato pie (and it’s expected anyway–holidays and family gatherings are the season for The Stupid). However, it’s worth it to just get a modicum of silence while they’re in mid-flight trying to parse out what you just said with all the alcohol and food inside them. And shut them up entirely by thanking them for just being there.