Let’s talk about Thanksgiving

November 23, 2018

Let’s set the record straight on Thanksgiving. It started as a celebration of the first successful harvest by the Pilgrims probably in 1621. It lasted three days and was likely attended by 53 Pilgrims and as many as 90 Native Americans who may, or may not, have been invited.

There was no turkey or sweet potatoes or pie. They probably dined on fish stew and cornmeal mush and wild game if they were lucky. What we know of the meal is limited to a few lines in two books by Pilgrims: Mourt’s Relation by Edward Winslow and Of Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford, the founder and governor of the Plymouth Colony settlement.

The Pilgrims were celebrating their first “halfway decent harvest” when members of the Wampanoag tribe showed up, likely uninvited, according to journalist Charles Mann, who wrote 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus and 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.

Bradford’s account doesn’t mention the Wampanoag, but Winslow describes Pilgrims rejoicing the “fruits of our labours” with “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.”

Mann said it’s unlikely they ate turkey (though Bradford describes a “great store” of the birds). Nor were there any of the potato or sweet potato dishes enjoyed today, as those didn’t grow in the colonies yet. They may have had cranberry sauce, though the Pilgrims didn’t recognize cranberries as edible. Without wheat or apples, they probably didn’t enjoy pies, either.

A few years before this potluck, a disease from shipwrecked French sailors swept through New England and killed most of the Wampanoag. The Pilgrims from the Mayflower essentially set up shop in one of their decimated villages, but they did bring valuable trade goods from Europe.

In the spring after the Mayflower’s arrival, the Wampanoag allied themselves with the Pilgrims to gain British goods and protection from warring tribes like the Narragansett, who wouldn’t mess with an ally of their trade partners. The Pilgrims in turn looked to the Wampanoag for survival, gaining valuable tricks like using fish for fertilizer to make effective use of the cornfields they stole from the Indians. They had a mutually beneficial relationship for about 50 years.

“I have no problem calling the three-day feast of ’21 Thanksgiving,” said historian Melanie Kirkpatrick, who wrote Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience. “But from the perspective of the Pilgrims, that was not a Thanksgiving. Because it was a feast, it wasn’t a religious event. They would have had prayers giving thanks.” The first Thanksgiving the Pilgrims likely would have recognized actually came in July 1623, summoned by Bradford as a day spent in worship and prayer to give thanks for rainfall that ended a drought.

Connecticut was the first state to call a Thanksgiving for general, everyday blessings, in 1639, according to Kirkpatrick. Other states followed suit. In 1789, George Washington issued the first presidential proclamation ever, and it was for a day of Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November to nationalize the tradition.

But Congress objected – imagine that - saying the president didn’t have that authority over the states. As a compromise, Washington recommended a day of thanks and sent a copy to every governor requesting, not ordering, them to issue their own day of Thanksgiving.

Those days were finally consolidated when President Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, proclaimed a national day of Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November for “Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

In my humble opinion, we ought to start EVERY day giving thanks. That will lead to a better attitude, which could, ultimately, lead to a better world.

Try this. Keep a Thanksgiving journal. Every morning when you get up, write down what you are thankful for. Before you go to bed, record what you are thankful for. Do it for the rest of this month and maybe, just maybe, you’ll want to do this for the rest of your life.

J.L. Schmidt has been covering Nebraska government and politics since 1979. He has been a registered Independent for 19 years.

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