Thanksgiving Mythology and Reality
The Thanksgiving Myth
by Cliff DuRand
[This talk was given at the Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship of San Miguel of Allende, November 23, 2008]
In many ways the Thanksgiving celebration is a unique festivity. As harvest festivals go it’s not particularly unusual: families gathering for a special meal to enjoy the bounty of nature and the fruit of the growing season’s labor. Most societies in the temperate zones of the earth have such harvest festivals. In the more northerly latitudes of Canada it comes in October as it does also in north China at the time of the harvest moon. At the latitudes of the United States Thanksgiving comes in late November, after the harvests are in.
So, what is so special about the Thanksgiving celebrated there? Unlike most of our other holidays, which are religious, Thanksgiving is secular. Neither is political like the 4th of Julywhich marks the beginning of the political entity called the United States of America. Thanksgiving is a more private holiday, celebrated with family around the dinner table. Yet it is also a celebration of families together in community with others. In addition to being a harvest festival, what is distinctive about our Thanksgiving is that it also celebrates the English settlement in North America and the founding of a nation. Thanksgiving marks the beginning of a nation, of a people, a century and a half before the formation of the U.S. It tells a story of our founding, a settlement. As such, it conveys an image of who we are as a people. It presents a narrative of how we began, of what we value, of who we are.
What is that image? First, a society based on home and family. Second, families rooted in a community, having a common unity. Third, a community that has settled in a new land, in the wilderness, where they work hard to make a new life for themselves. Finally, a people with a generosity of spirit that shares its bounty with neighbors and lives in brotherhood with them. In the practice of Thanksgiving, we embrace the values of the human warmth of family, Christian charity, and brotherhood. As a people, this is who we define ourselves to be.
But if you look at the historical record surrounding the first Thanksgiving, we find that the usual narrative is largely fictitious. It leaves out crucial circumstances about the Pilgrims settling Plymouth in 1620. Let me fill in some of the missing parts of the story.
One key fact that made this settlement possible was the Black Plague or Bubonic Plague that had killed one third of the population of Europe centuries earlier. Those who survived, and their descendants carried immunities to this and many other diseases unknown to the far healthier populations native to the new world. English fishermen who had been coming to the waters off the coast of Massachusetts for decades before the Pilgrims, brought microbes to the peoples living there. Beginning in 1617, just three years before the Pilgrims landed, pandemics broke out that wiped out 90 to 96% of the native population of southern New England.
It was thus that the Pilgrims found a land without people. But as luck would have it, at the deserted Indian town which they renamed Plymouth, they found fields of corn ready for the harvesting. Without that would they have survived that first winter? “Throughout New England, colonists appropriated Indian cornfields, which explains why so many town names” end in ‘field’: Marshfield, Springfield, Deerfield.
This good fortune and the misfortune of the Indians was taken by the pious Pilgrims as a sign of Gods favor. King James of England, who saw to the promulgation of his version of the Bible, gave thanks to “Almighty God in his great goodness and bounty towards us,” for sending “this wonderful plague among the savages.” So much for brotherly love. And John Winthrop, Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, also a pious man, observed in 1634:
One of those who put himself under their protection was Squanto, who is usually mentioned as knowing English and having taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn. But the story of how he came to know English is not usually told. He had been taken prisoner by a British captain in 1605 and brought to England for nine years. There he worked for a Plymouth merchant (who incidentally helped finance the Mayflower) and who arranged his passage back to Massachusetts. But then in 1614 he and a couple dozen members of his tribe were taken by a British slave raider and sold into slavery in Spain. Squanto escaped, made his way back to England where he gained passage back to Cape Cod. But when he returned to his home village, he found to his horror that he was the only member of his tribe still alive. All the others had perished in an epidemic two years earlier. Is it any wonder that he threw in his lot with the Pilgrims when they arrived shortly thereafter?
Similarly, it was the plague that led to the alliance of the Wampanoags with the Pilgrims since they feared the stronger Narragansetts to the west. Under the leadership of their chief Massasoit, they were the Indian guests at the 1621 thanksgiving feast which we now commerate. Unfortunately, this friendship did not last due to the attempt of the English to take their land and bring them under English rule. They were nearly wiped out in King Philip’s War, a victory that was celebrated in a Thanksgiving proclamation in 1676, often referred to as the first proclamation of Thanksgiving. So, the first official Thanksgiving proclamation celebrated the slaughter of the guests at the first Thanksgiving!
I might mention a few other embarrassing historical facts about this occasion. It was Abraham Lincoln who made it a national holiday in 1863 in an effort to promote national unity in the midst of the Civil War. He later proclaimed another national thanksgiving in August in celebration of the Union victory at Gettysburg. In fact, many Presidential Thanksgiving proclamations were to celebrate success in war rather than for peace and brotherhood. The Pilgrims weren’t even included in the story until the 1890s. And it was in the 19th century that some enterprising citizens of Plymouth rolled the Plymouth Rock down to the seashore so it could be said that this was where the Pilgrims first set foot on land. That has certainly helped tourism in the years since. And it was in 1939 that Franklin Roosevelt moved the date for Thanksgiving up a week earlier so as to allow for more shopping days before Christmas. Public protest forced him in 1941 to move the date back to the last Thursday in November, where it has been ever since.
As the founding myth of our nation, Thanksgiving conceals from view the ambiguous legacy of the country. Barack Obama has called slavery our original sin. But the historical fact is that slavery was our second sin. The original one was the taking of this continent and the near annihilation of its original inhabitants. The Thanksgiving Myth covers this over with a story of brotherhood and generosity. It induces a historical amnesia.
Where does this iconoclastic look at Thanksgiving leave us? Was Henry Ford, right? Is history bunk? I have spoken of the Thanksgiving myth. What do I mean by calling it a myth? A myth is a made-up story, an invented narrative often hung on a few selected historical pegs. Certainly, any truthful history of our nation would have to highlight the reality of the theft of the continent from its original inhabitants and the genocide against them. After all, the settlers were colonists, convinced of their divine destiny. They did not win the land by brotherly love. We’re talking about colonialism here.
Much of the bounty celebrated on Thanksgiving Day is the fruit of the land we stole from the natives, created by the labor of slaves, their descendants and the waves of immigrants that continue to this day. It is the fruit of exploitation, not brotherhood. It is this sordid history that the Thanksgiving narrative ignores.
Yet, for all that, there is something true in the Thanksgiving Myth. We have to understand that a myth is not history. It does not tell us what we have done; it tells us what we want to be. By celebrating Thanksgiving, we are reminding ourselves of the values we want to uphold in our lives and as a people. We value human relationships, we value brotherhood, we value peace. In spite of the ugly history that has brought us to the present, we still hold those values dear. And it is practices like Thanksgiving that help keep those values alive in our consciousness, and in our hearts. They are what enable us to keep hope alive (in the words of Jesse Jackson 20 years ago) as we pursue a better America, one worthy of our highest values. And it is that hope that finally broke out of a long dark tunnel into the bright sunlight on the first Tuesday of this month. It is that hope that can now renew our faith in this nation as we celebrate on the last Thursday of the month. At last we have much to be thankful for. We can celebrate the founding of a new nation worthy of our highest ideals. Si se puede. Yes, we can.
The above words were spoken nine years ago just after the election of an African American president ended the dark age of the Bush presidency. We were all eager to believe that the struggles for social justice of the 1960s had born fruit at last with the dawning of a new age of brotherhood. Some 60% of the voters had embraced the vision that their country was multi-cultural and multi-racial. Yes, we can. In fact, yes, we did.
But we soon learned that “no, now he can’t.” A fierce reaction set in among those who understood America as a white nation as its founders had intended. While they might tolerate the presence of people of color in their country, such a person could not be accepted as President, a symbol of a white nation. He must not really be an American. His legitimacy must be denied since it was a threat to their very self concept as Americans.
It was thus that the racism inherent in the founding myth of Thanksgiving has come back to haunt us. As my wife says, “the cucarachas have come out into the open.” The cockroaches of racism, of sexism, of chauvinism. As in physics, every force gives rise to an opposite and equal reaction. And now the great majority of people of good will are rising up in reaction to the roaches, affirming the humane values America has always meant to them. This Thanksgiving the struggle continues in our society and within ourselves as in the words of Black poet Langston Hughes, the struggle continues to “Let America be America again.”
Editor’s after note on how to celebrate Thanksgivingthis year by Rabbi Michael Lerner firstname.lastname@example.org
There is a lot to give thanks for in our world today, and we ought not let the Trumpists and their assembly of racists, sexists, homophobes, Islamophobes, anti-Semites, climate change deniers, champions of carbon pollution of our global environment, and those who are writing and supporting the tax bill that serves the corporations and the super-rich at the expense of the poor and the middle class ruin this opportunity to get people in your life to spend some time at our Thanksgi are ving table to actually focus some time on expressing out loud some of what they appreciate about each other, about themselves, about the tens of millions of people ( the numerical majority of voters ) who did not vote for Trump or others in both parties who blindly put the needs of corporateAmerica above the needs of the rest of the population. It would also be a good timeto remind each other that many who did vote for Trump were NOT racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. but people who were voting against the Democratic Party that they perceived as having abandoned them (sometimes with good reason) or against a Left that assumes that those not on the Left are really haters or racists, sexists, etc., or against a Left that assumes that they are all stupid, or against a Left that sees them as a bundle of deplorables (in Hillary Clinton’s words) or a Left that at times sounds as if it is seeing ALL whites as racist and ALL men as sexist without knowing anything about the actual life experiences of many of those whom they are labeling, or against a Left that dismisses all people who are religious as ignorant or just plain stupid.
No, I’m NOT saying that this is a fair picture of everyone on the LEFT, but a fair picture of what many people have experienced from the Left or been misled into believing is true of everyone on the Left. One point we at Tikkun keep makingis that many people hear liberals and progressives as having a long list of complaints (what we are against) but no overall coherent vision of the world we are FOR. That’s why we at Tikkun and our interfaith and secular-humanist-and atheist-welcoming Network of Spiritual Progressives advocate for all the different parts of the liberal and progressive culture (not only activists, but all those who voted for Democrats or Greens in 2016) to adopt our call for A New Bottom Line. Instead of measuring productivity, efficiency or rationality by how much money or power gets produced, lets judge the productivity, efficiency and/or rationality of our corporations, government policies, our whole economy, our legal system, our educational system and even much of our own personal “success” by how much they and we (here is the NEW BOTTOM LINE) tend to increase love, compassion, generosity, kindness, environmental sanity, ethical behavior, social and economic justice, and enhance our capacity to see others as fundamentally valuable and deserving of respect (rather that see them through a more utilitarian framework of “what can they do advance our own personal interests?”) AND how much they increase our capacity to see our mother EARTH not only as something that can be “used” to satisfy human needs but also as something that evokes awe,wonder and radical amazement at the grandeur and mystery of life . Now imagine you could get people talking about this New Bottom Line—you’d have a discussion of basic values, not just about how outrageous this or that thing Trump said or tweeted!
And if you get into this kind of discussion, it might make sense to also tell them about Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives, a movement of people who seek to help reshape the culture of liberal and progressive movements in ways that will help many people who should be on our side come back to supporting those movements once they no longer feel so elitist, shaming and blaming of people not yet on our side, religohobic, and thinking that anyone not already with us must of necessity be either stupid or evil. Urge them to subscribe to Tikkun www.tikkun.org/subscribe ,to buy gift subscriptions for a perfect holiday gift, or to join the Network of Spiritual Progressives at www.spiritualprogressives.org/join, or if they have any activist bones in their body to take the Activist Training in the Trump years at www.spiritualprogressives.org/training