I’m reading a book about the “First Thanksgiving.” Turns out, there was no turkey. No cranberry sauce. No sweet potatoes. No pecan pie. No pumpkin pie. No whipped cream. There were Indians present, Wampanoags, outnumbering the English settlers roughly two-to-one. They killed five deer and donated the meat to the feast, probably to round out the main dish, sobaheg. The Native American stew consisted of
“…boiled maize or Indian corn, mixed with kidney beans, or sometimes without. Also, they frequently boil in this pottage fish and flesh of all sorts, either taken fresh or newly dried….These they cut in pieces, bones and all, and boil them….Also they boil in this furmenty all sorts of flesh that they take in hunting, as venison, beaver, bear’s flesh, moose, otters, raccoons…several sorts of roots, as Jerusalem artichokes, and ground nuts….and squashes.”
Rather than a celebration of plenty, the Native Americans and the settlers were engaged in a diplomatic dance, testing the waters of mutual trust and support in the face of great hardship. The Indians were threatened by warring neighboring tribes and disease epidemics; the settlers were in dire straights due to the privations of sickness, hunger, exposure and all that goes with trying to carve an existence out of a strange and hostile environment. “The feast was one of a whole series of meetings at which the English (settlers) and the Wampanoags tried to establish good relations.”
In short, they came together because they needed each other to survive.
The myth of the “First Thanksgiving” is an example of what historians have come to call “the invention of tradition.” What we call “Thanksgiving Day” today bears little in common with the meeting in 1621 it supposedly commemorates. In fact, the English (and Native Americans) had a long history of formally giving thanks for the year’s crop and other events looked on as favor from God. Equally important to them was the regular practice of humbling themselves through fasting and prayer when things were going south. Not coincidentally, a solemn day of thanksgiving often followed the self-imposed act of humiliating themselves before God, preferably by fasting rather than feasting. The reason for thanksgiving? It started to rain after a drought. An overdue supply ship suddenly arrived. The epidemic ended. In other words, their prayers were answered.
So, the national holiday we celebrate every November on the fourth Thursday of the month (a change by President Roosevelt in 1939 to accommodate retailers’ desire to begin raking in Christmas holiday dollars as early as possible) brings families together to share a sumptuous meal and watch football on television, enjoying parades and time off from work. Apart from the obligatory saying of “grace” before the meal in most Catholic homes, our modern Day of Thanksgiving entirely misses the point of the historical practice of acknowledging God as the source of our good fortune and bounty as individuals and as a nation. As politically incorrect as it is to say today, good fortune and bounty are just words implying blessings from God.
Today, the only public acknowledgement of gratefulness for God’s blessings occurs regularly, by rote, about 11:30 a.m. every Sunday – in church (or Friday or Saturday at the mosque or synagogue, respectively.) This is the definition of lip service.
Giving thanks to God once was a central feature of our cultural mien. Not only preachers, but everyone from statesmen to street sweepers spoke confidently and comfortably about the graciousness of God in their public and private lives. We know cultures ancient and more modern incorporated giving thanks to the deity as a way of life, uninhibited and unembarrassed by the show of genuine emotion of gratefulness.
Two years after the “First Thanksgiving,” the English settlers at Plymouth experienced a drastic crop failure caused by an extended drought. A supply ship from England was long overdue and presumed lost at sea. Edward Winslow, one of their leaders, recorded they were moved to “humble ourselves before the Lord by fasting and prayer.” It began to rain the next day, and continued for another two weeks. Within days, Myles Standish arrived with fresh provisions from the coast of Maine, bringing word the supply ship due from England had not been lost at sea, and would be arriving soon. Winslow wrote, “So that having these many signs of God’s favor and acceptation we thought it would be great ingratitude, if secretly we should smother up the same, or content ourselves with private thanksgiving for that which by private prayer could not be obtained. And therefore another solemn day was set apart and appointed for that end, wherein we returned glory, honor and praise, with all thankfulness, to our God, which dealt so graciously with us.”
Likewise, the colonies of Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut kept both days of fasting and humiliation, and days of thanksgiving (small T.) According to records of Reverend William Love, thanksgivings were held for the arrival of ships in 1631, twice in 1632, and again twice in 1633.
The Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1782, as the nation began its heady march into the future, proclaimed another meaningful thanksgiving:
“It being the indispensable duty of all Nations, not only to offer up their supplications to ALMIGHTY GOD, the giver of all good, for his gracious assistance in a time of distress, but also in a solemn and public manner to give him praise for his goodness in general, and especially for great and signal interpositions of his providence in their behalf…”
In 1789, George Washington issued the first official National Thanksgiving Proclamation, exhorting Americans to express their gratitude to God “in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us” further stating that “it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor.” No mention of the Macy’s parade.
Thanksgiving Day as we celebrate it today came by way of presidential proclamation resulting from the unswerving dedication by Sarah Josepha Hale to create a national festival to rival the Fourth of July. Hale saw the new holiday as a unifying influence on the nation growing more divisive by the day leading up to the Civil War. She lobbied continuously for its establishment until, finally, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1864. For her part, Hale called upon “the people of the States and Territories [to] sit down together to ‘feast of fat things’ and drink in the sweet draught of joy and gratitude to the Divine giver of all our blessings…” Lincoln referred to “the gracious gifts of the Most High God…They should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged.” The last Thursday of November was proclaimed as a day of thanksgiving and praise “to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”
The “First Thanksgiving” probably included a prayer of thanks prior to the meal, as both the English settlers and the Indians were aware of their place in the cosmos: mere human beings subject to and dependent on a greater, higher power. Their concepts of this higher power were clearly different, but each recognized their indebtedness to it for whatever grace they enjoyed in life.
Our modern celebration of the Thanksgiving holiday bears little resemblance to this gathering in 1621. What also bears little resemblance in this day and age is the way we profess our gratitude to God. In the not too distant past, and for time immemorial, cultures openly and unabashedly expressed sincere thanks to God for blessings as a matter of course. However, there has been a palpable shift in our willingness to acknowledge God in the way our ancestors did. This is the tradition of our forefathers that needs to be recaptured.
Let’s once again begin to give credit where credit is due, and see if there comes some acknowledgement of our effort in return.