Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The origins of Thanksgiving -the American Holyday

Cultures around the world have historically celebrated their harvests with thanksgiving ceremonies. The Greeks thanked Demeter, goddess of grain. The Romans had a similar goddess called Ceres, from whom we get the word cereal, her festival was called Cerelia and was held on Oct 8th. The ancient Egyptians celebrated their harvest festival in honor of Min, their god of vegetation and fertility. The Chinese celebrated their harvest festival called Chung Ch'ui. The Jewish autumnal celebration is called Sukkoth, the English have autumnal feasts, the Germans have Oktoberfest.

We Americans are the only turkeys who actually celebrate with turkeys.

So some history:
Thanksgiving is the preeminent American holiday. It deals with our forefathers being led by God to this virgin land and through hard work and fair play turning the wilderness into one of the world's great civilizations.

It's a nice story. However, several important things were left out of the story. It's pretty obvious that the Native Americans have their own version of events. But there’s another group left entirely out of the story -- the Spanish. They had settlements in the New World a full hundred years before the English. More to the point, the first known thanksgiving feast in North America was celebrated by Francisco Vasquez De Coronado when he dined with the Teya people in May of 1541--- in of all the non-New Englandy places but Texas.

French Huguenots in Jacksonville Florida held the 2nd Thanksgiving celebration in 1564. There were no known native guests but I’ll bet the Frenchies ate better than the Puritans up in New England. The third Thanksgiving was held by Spaniards right after they massacred those French Huguenots, when Admiral Pedro Menendez de Aviles put on a feedbag with the natives in St. Augustine, Florida in 1565.

Despite these facts, we nail our hat to the notion that America is a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant nation and so went looking for a proper English origin for our country and settled upon the Pilgrims. Yet even the English had earlier settlements than Plymouth. Jamestown, Virginia was founded 12 years prior. We don't trace our origins back to Jamestown because it was a disastrous failure ---those pilgrims feasted upon each other. Cannibalism makes a poor foundation to build a myth upon.

So selected history has skipped over the Spanish, the French and Jamestown and instead chosen the Pilgrims.

Okay, let's start with them.

They were called Pilgrims.


The term "Pilgrims," referring to religious travelers, wasn't used to describe the early Plymouth colonists until the early 1800s, when someone found a phrase used by the 2nd Governor of the Colony, William Bradford "they knew they were pilgrims" and that became their cleaned- up alias as we reinvented the Puritans. Before we discover why America needed to reinvent the Puritans, let’s find out a thing or two about them.

(By the way, a great way to learn about them is to read MAYFLOWER by Nathan Philbrick, see the amazon link, buy the book, you'll get edjmakated and I'll get a cut of the sale.)

The Pilgrims were Puritans. Puritans were religious fundamentalists (Did someone say Taliban?) who believed that the Protestant Reformation hadn’t gone far enough to eradicate the influence of the Catholic Church in merry Ole England. They felt the Church of England was merely the Catholic Church dressed up in other vestments. They intended to purify the Church of England. The people we call Pilgrims called themselves ‘Separatists.” Because they were on the radical fringe of the Puritan sect. They didn’t believe that the Church of England could be made more “pure”. Instead they wanted to separate and form their own religious haven somewhere outside of England. First in the Netherlands and then the land of the free, home of the brave.

Puritans didn't celebrate standard Christian holidays, no Christmas, Easter, no nothin'. They celebrated the Sabbath and had two other religious days held whenever warranted. There was a day of fasting that was held when bad things happened. When good things happened, they had a day of thanks for God's providence. These two special days were never held on the Sabbath, instead they were usually held on meeting day - Thursday. Which is how Thanksgiving Day wound up on a Thursday.

They were also millenialists; people who believed the end times were at hand. And that in 1620 ,as foretold in Revelations,the world was entering into the Time of the Saints. In 1618 a comet had appeared across Europe. It was considered the starting gun for the end times. But first there would be a thousand year reign by Christ before the final judgment. At first they felt that England was the New Jerusalem and later decided that America was the New Jerusalem. (They wouldn’t be the last religious group to hold that belief. Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormons –another separatist who would take his congregation outside the United States to the Indian territory of Utah-- not only believed that America was the New Jerusalem, he thought it was also the old one. He claimed that the Garden of Eden had been in Missouri. Hmmm. Adam and Eve walked around naked; maybe that’s why it’s called the Show Me State.)

Oddly enough after they were settling in New England and lost half of their colony to disease, the plain old Puritans back in England actually took over the place. Oliver Cromwell one hard-ass Puritan defeated the Royal forces in the English Civil War, had the King executed and made himself Lord Protector and began instituting a Puritan nation. And as an aside he slaughtered untold tens of thousands in Ireland and Scotland. Cromwell was the cause of “The Troubles” in Ireland. He gave his protestant soldiers most of the land in Northern Ireland as payment for services rendered. He died and was buried in Westminster Abbey. When the Royalist took over again, his body was disinterred, beheaded, and left hanging outdoors for a few years.

So to wrap it up-- the name "Puritan" doesn't hold a lot of positive connotations. Their reputation wasn't enhanced much after the Salem Witch hunts. "Pilgrim" sounds so much nicer.

Americans have been celebrating Thanksgiving non-stop since T-1 back in 1621

Their 1621 three-day potluck dinner was the first Survivor Cast Party.
Half the colony had died over their first winter. In 1621 thanks to the injuns they had a good harvest -- they’d live another winter, let’s party on down.

1622 went without a Thanksgiving.

Then in 1623 a drought ending rain sent by God was reason enough for a 2nd Thanksgiving party. It’s unclear if any Natives attended.

From then on it there wasn’t an annual autumnal feast, just the sporadic Day of Thanks when something good happened.

I’m getting the impression that some of what I learned about the first Thanksgiving isn't true.

Pretty much. But what's important isn't that you were taught a false history. The interesting thing is why you were taught this little morality play.

You undoubtedly learned back in grade school that:

A. The Pilgrims carved a civilization out of an uninhabited wilderness.
The New World wasn't uninhabited land waiting to be settled. The estimated population of Europe at the time of Columbus was 70 million. The population of the Americas (North & South) is put at 100 million. History acknowledges the advanced societies of the Aztecs and Mayans and their vast cities. But we are told that the North American natives were wild savages. Did anyone ever tell you about Cahokia, Illinois, a Native American settlement with a population of 40,000? No, of course not, if the Natives had settlements then we really couldn't call the Pilgrims "settlers" could we?

The truth is there were no cloven-hoofed animals in the Americas and thus when the East Coast natives began having contact with European traders they had no immunity to the garden-variety anthrax and other diseases like smallpox that the Europeans brought with them.

(They did have some payback though, they gave Europeans venereal disease. In Native Americans it manifested itself as a minor flu virus. When it hit Europe it became deadly. So it's somewhat odd that the Europeans gave the disease a humorous name. The word “venereal” comes from Venus the goddess of love.)

In Massachusetts members of the well-established Wampanoag settlement had been wiped out by plague contracted from Europeans. King James II gave thanks to "Almighty God in his great goodness and bounty towards us for sending this wonderful plague among the savages." When the Puritans arrived they took over the homes, possessions and most important-- the already cleared fields. The remaining natives were kind to the Puritans because their decimated tribe desperately needed allies to protect them against their enemy, the Narragansetts. The Puritans had guns.

Actual Photo taken by Mayflower Passenger Ezikiah Kodak

B. The Pilgrims were headed for Virginia but a storm blew their tiny Mayflower off-course and God guided them to Plymouth.

Well kinda.

They were headed for the future site of New York City, which the English considered the northern boundary of Virginia; the western boundary was the Pacific Ocean. But Henry Hudson working for the Dutch had already sailed up the river that bears his name in 1609. And the Dutch were already making plans to start a colony there. Which they did 4 years after the Puritans landed in Plymouth. While the Puritans were living in the Netherlands the Dutch offered them a patent to colonize New York. When the Puritans turned down the offer it’s believed that the Dutch sabotaged their efforts to sail, delaying their journey so that they arrived in winter.

They got lost along the way and couldn’t get the Mayflower to clear the shoals off Cape Cod and instead just went ashore.

There’s also an unlikely conspiracy theory out there that the Puritans were headed to New England all along. Remember Squanto from the story, the kind Indian who taught them how to place a fish in the ground when they planted corn? He really did exist. He had been kidnapped by sailors and brought to Europe as a slave. He learned English and met with Fernando Gorges, the leader of the Plymouth Company BEFORE they left England for Holland and told them about his beautiful village of Pawtucket, which the Puritans would later rename "Plimouth."

C. The Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock.
Sorry. Never happened. The exploring party landed in Plimouth/Plymouth/Patuxet on December 21, 1620. Not one of them ever mentioned anything about a rock in their journals. William Bradford, one of those pilgrims wrote the seminal book: Of Plimouth Plantation. He never mentioned a rock. In later years the rock part was dreamt up to add a "Upon this rock I will build my church/ nation" twist to the story. This supported the theme that America was the New Jerusalem.

D. Thanksgiving was the very first Woodstock.

Peace and love between Whites and Natives. The Puritans were only slightly less brutal to the Native Americans than other colonists. They took a few shots at the first native they sighted. They then immediately looted the homes and graves of the natives. Up until the Mid-1800's the few visuals that depicted Puritans, were usually battle scenes. One you may have seen is of Puritans fleeing a shower of arrows. They didn't carry those cute little muskets for nuthin. Within 50 years of the Mayflower’s landing most of the New England natives were decimated. You know about the Mayflower carrying a ship full of colonists, but have you ever heard of the Seaflower? It was a ship that left Plymouth fifty years later loaded to the gills with Indians being sold as slaves to work in the sugar plantations of the Caribbean.

To recap:
They weren't called Pilgrims, it wasn't called Plymouth, there was no Plymouth Rock, and they didn't get along too well with the natives. They didn't carve a civilization from out of the wilderness. And God didn't lead them there. There was however turkey and some tasteless sugar-free pumpkin pie if that makes you feel any better.

Okay, so then how did this one shot celebration of a few religious extremists become a beloved national holiday?

It's pretty simple. All cultures have an origin myth. Whether it is Romulus and Remus being raised by wolves and founding Rome, or Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. (And before I get mail from those who believe in the literal existence of Adam and Eve --remember the definition of a myth: a traditional story accepted as history that serves to explain the worldview of a people)

Anthropologists lay out certain rules for origin myths:
1. It constitutes the history of the acts of the founders
2. It is considered to be true.
3. It tells how an institution came into being
4. In performing the ritual associated with the myth (think of turkey, cranberries and pumpkin pie) one experiences knowledge of the origin and claims one's patriarchy.
5. Thus one lives "the myth" as a religion.

So Thanksgiving has become our quasi-religious holiday, where our families gather around the altar (the dining room table) and recount the story of how God gave this land to us Anglo-Saxon Protestants, or if you prefer –us White folk.

The odd thing is that the Father of our Country, George Washington would be totally lost if you invited him to your Thanksgiving Dinner with the cute little cardboard cutouts of Pilgrims on the table. Why? Because the Pilgrim story of Thanksgiving really didn't take hold in America until the late 1880's.

George would have known that up in New England they celebrated an autumnal feast. But it was strictly a regional celebration. There was good reason why Thanksgiving was big in New England. When the Puritans controlled the Colony, they disliked the pagan origins of Christmas celebrations and so for many years it was illegal to take off on Christmas Day in Massachusetts.

"For preventing disorders, arising in several places within this jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other communities, to the great dishonor of God and offense of others: it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county."

From the records of the General Court,
Massachusetts Bay Colony
May 11, 1659

In England the Christmas feast was traditional. So New Englanders who weren’t allowed to celebrate Christmas coped by turning the New England Thanksgiving celebration into a food feast, an oral orgy with traditional Christmas foods and pies.

Other regions of the country where Christmas was indeed celebrated began looking jealously at New England. Why couldn’t they have a food orgy in autumn too? It kind of reminds me of Christian children who complain that they don’t get 8 days of Hanukkah gifts, too.

If you Google Days of Thanksgiving the results are very confusing, because there were other days in other colonies called Days of Thanksgiving, but these had nothing to do with Puritans.

On Nov. 1, 1777 The Continental Congress suggested a National Thanksgiving be held. But it was in response to the defeat of the British General Burgoyne in Saratoga, New York. For that matter the Queen of England declared a Thanksgiving Day when the Spanish Armada was defeated.

After the War of 1812, New York State declared a Statewide Day of Thanksgiving.

But by the mid-1800’s other states began to celebrate a Thanksgiving Day. This had nothing to do with Pilgrims, Indians or the NFL. It was merely the growing popularity of a Yankee celebration that moved west with settlers from the Northeast. Kind of like the present day growing popularity amongst Anglos of the Mexican Cinco de Mayo celebration.

Which is where Sarah Josepha Hale comes into the picture.
She was a New England gal. A writer. You know one of her poems: Mary had a little lamb. She was the Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey of her day. She was also the editor of a very influential women’s magazine called Godey’s Ladies Book. It not only contained articles like “Refreshing Drinks for Summer ” It also introduced women readers to the likes of Goethe and Cervantes. She became a one-woman committee to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. She wrote non-stop letters to legislators. As tensions heated up before the Civil War she promoted a National day of Thanksgiving as a way to prevent hostilities. Didn’t work.

Here’s one of her editorials if you’re interested:

We are most happy to agree with the large majority of the governors of the different States -- as shown in their unanimity of action for several past years, and which, we hope, will this year be adopted by all -- that the LAST THURSDAY IN NOVEMBER shall be the DAY Of NATIONAL THANKSGIVING for the American people.
Let this day, from this time forth, as long as our Banner of Stars floats on the breeze, be the grand THANKSGIVING HOLIDAY of our nation, when the noise and tumult of wordliness may be exchanged for the laugh of happy children, the glad greetings of family reunion, and the humble gratitude of the Christian heart…

Let us consecrate the day to benevolence of action, by sending good gifts to the poor, and doing those deeds of charity that will, for one day, make every American home the place of plenty and of rejoicing. These seasons of refreshing are of inestimable advantage to the popular heart; and if rightly managed, will greatly aid and strengthen public harmony of feeling. Let the people of all the States and Territories sit down together to the "feast of fat things," and drink, in the sweet draught of joy and gratitude to the Divine giver of all our blessings, the pledge of renewed love to the Union, and to each other; and of peace and good-will to all men. Then the last Thursday in November will soon become the day of AMERICAN THANKSGIVING throughout the world.

During the Civil War the South declared a National Day of Thanksgiving after their victory at Bull Run. Not to be outdone, President Lincoln declared a National Day of Thanksgiving for April 13th, 1862 to celebrate the Union victory at Shiloh, and again on Aug. 6th, 1863 for the victory at Gettysburg.

But the idea of a national holiday where we sat down ate and gave thanks for our abundant blessings didn’t take traction until ole Abe declared a National Day of Thanksgiving for the fourth Thursday of November in 1863.

Here’s the Proclamation in Abe’s own words:

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

After Abe, every single President would annually declare a National Day of Thanksgiving. (It took many years before Thanksgiving became popular in the South. It was considered just another piece of Yankee cultural imperialism being forced upon poor Dixie.) The date of Thanksgiving would hop around. Eventually it fell upon the last Thursday in November. But more important, as you may have noticed in the above proclamation there was no mention of the first Thanksgiving, Pilgrims, Puritans or any of that crap.

They weren't mentioned until Hebert Hoover's proclamation in 1931.

How did the Pilgrims reappear after 300 years?

Beginning in the late 1800's the Puritans began to re-emerge. They were characterized as religious pilgrims on a divine mission to carve a civilization out of the wilderness. Considering the fact that the West had just been "won" and the Native Indian population wiped out, this was a very convenient myth to bandy about.

The myth of the Pilgrims (like the myth of Columbus) was rediscovered and refashioned to fit America's new concept of itself. The country was flush with money; many Americans were enjoying the fruits of the Industrial Revolution. It is no coincidence that by the late 1800’s the emerging Middle Class could afford factory made chairs and dishes and so hold a proper Thanksgiving Feast.

Look at all these consumer goods –look at this civilization we’ve carved from the wilderness! Praise the Lord and pass the Sears-Roebuck catalog.

By the time old Herbie Hoover was in office in the 1930's the myth of the Pilgrims had taken hold. In the early 1900's America was being overrun with immigrants. 1,280,000 entered the country in 1907. Worst yet, they were Catholics and Jews! The myth of different ethnic groups sitting down peaceably at the same table, a Protestant table no less, was mighty potent. And so the story was taught to American school children. The story became one of the most important founding myths of our nation. As schoolchildren we were all taught to take part in the myth by cutting up paper plates to make turkeys.

And there you have it. Here we are approaching everyone's favorite holiday, one that centers on food, family and football.

You don't have to buy any presents, nor Valentine chocolates or flowers; all you have to do is buy into the myth of our Pilgrim forefathers.

But then, now you know better, you know the truth.

Gotta go, there are a bunch of cute little Pilgrims outside burning a woman alive at the stake.

Happy Bird Day Everyone.


New York Thanksgiving connections:

Within 30 years of the Puritans coming ashore in Plymouth they had spread south and were on the outskirts of the Dutch Colony of New Netherlands. They founded a city outside of New Amsterdam. They named it for the New Ark of the Covenant. You know that town as Newark. They also settled Suffolk County on Long Island and named one of their first towns after Oliver Cromwell’s birthplace: Huntingdon, England. Today, that town is known as Huntington, Long Island.

Of course NY’s biggest Thanksgiving Connection is The Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. It began in 1924 when all those immigrants who had just flooded the island of Manhattan eagerly embraced the Pilgrim Myth. Macy’s immigrant employees marched down Broadway dressed like Indians. Herding a bunch of animals borrowed from the Central park zoo. Eventually the animals would be replaced by Animal balloons. The entire interesting history of the parade can be found www.macys.com/campaign/parade/history.jsp

The film A Miracle on 34th Street has wedded Macy’s to not only Thanksgiving but also the American Christmas celebration. The parade scenes were shot at an actual 1946 Macy’s parade, which looks downright dorky. You’ll remember that the film featured the rivalry between the two dept store giants: Macy’s & Gimbels. As in the phrase “Does Macy’s tell Gimbels?” The phrase is still alive but Gimbels isn’t, except for an old painted wall sign. Stand on the corner of 7th Ave at 31st street (near Penn Station) Look east and on your left up top you’ll see “Gimbels” calling out to you from Christmas past.

One other weird Macy’s thing. The Macy’s were an old whaling family. One of the first of the whalers had a star tattoo, which became the family emblem, and eventually Macy’s logo. When the whaling biz died out they turned their ships into cargo ships and brought goods to NY and sold them by the wharves of South Street. They did so well they opened a store. Then, many stores. And once a year you’ll notice that Macy’s still has “a whale of a sale” to honor their Whaling heritage. You are now one of six people in the world who knows this.

So what became of those cute little Puritans?
The United Church of Christ traces itself back to the Mayflower. Those Puritanical dudes dressed in black have become one of the most progressive, liberal congregations in America. A few years ago CBS refused to sell them air time on the Superbowl because the commercial showed, blacks, Latinos and gays in their congregation with the line Jesus didn’t discriminate, neither do we.
Apparently that was way too radical of an idea.

Liberal Puritans---- That’s something to be thankful for.

Enjoy the American Holyday.

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