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The Conflicted History of Thanksgiving
Much as I love this holiday, much as I am entranced by its esoteric meaning, as an Interfaith Minister and student of comparative mythology, this
holiday, as celebrated in the United States and Canada, always makes my head spin. The history of this holiday inevitably brings up humbling and
difficult associations for me, because I cannot forget or ignore the shortcomings of our ancestors, much as I honor them.
According to the conventional story, strong, righteous English Puritans arrived at a wilderness in the New World . They brought what was considered to
be a superior civilization and most important, their Christian values, to a thankless, scattered group of itinerant savages, and received turkeys,
pumpkins, squash, corn and cranberry sauce in return. Beneath the mainstream celebration commemorating their arrival, a millenial clash of cultures
and conflicting mythologies creates a kind of cognitive dissonance that manifests for me in conflicting emotions of joy and mourning, thanksgiving and
As I sit at home with Jane, cocooned in isolation from the larger community, I join in a virtual commons of like-minded, passive viewers watching a
media spectacle with a very demanding subtext.
The towering air-filled balloons march through Midtown Manhattan across my TV screen, filling my living room, as we munch on breakfast and sip on hot
sugary caffeinated liquids while we participate in a nationwide homage to the omnipresence of the brand icons of Madison Avenue, a celebration of
consumer culture and its ability to mesmerize children, of all ages, with pastel kitsch cartoon characters emoting warm and fuzzy sentimentality that
jerks the heartstrings while imprinting a series of corporate logos in the brains of viewers everywhere.
There is a subtext, and that is that the imagination will be subordinated to the advertising message, that Friday the entire nation of 200,000,000
will awaken as one, with a druggy food hangover, climb in our SUVs and race to the shopping malls to begin a marathon orgy of compulsive spending and
acquisition, which will climax on or about the festival commemorating the birthday of Jesus Christ.
Throughout this schizophrenic “holiday season”, our excessive spending and overconsumption of food, drink and electronic media are implied to be a
gargantuan love offering to the Divine and, simultaneously, a concrete expression of the gratitude we all feel to our cultural forbears and an
affirmation of the rampant materialism of our consumer culture.
America’s current cultural mythology of social Darwinism holds that competition among individuals to enrich themselves at the expense of others and
the commons is the God-given right and the moral duty of all God-fearing Americans, and will result in a Divinely ordered society, with the most
deserving individuals conspicuous by virtue of their wealth and 10,000 square foot McMansions, and the least deserving individuals marked with the
unmistakable stigmata of their moral failure, apparent to all in their lack of material possessions.
There are two excellent antidotes to this pervasive cultural poison. The first is historical awareness and the second is spiritual practice. The two
really go hand in hand.
Let us begin at the beginning. More or less. As best as we are able.
In the 1600s in England , a civil war was brewing between the traditional society and the adherents of a revolutionary, fundamentalist Protestant sect
called the Puritans. At that time the Church of England was the official state-approved religion and Catholic and other Protestant priests and
preachers had to operate as kind of spiritual undergound, subject to harassment of all kinds.
King Charles ruled supreme, and Parliament was an advisory body with few powers, called to meetings upon such occasions as the King determined
The Puritans believed they were the few righteous saints in a society of corrupt sinners, burdened excessively by the rapacious parasitism of King,
nobility and court-approved clergy, and that only by forcing their own religious beliefs on their less spiritually evolved neighbors using fire and
sword could the nation be saved.
Puritans expected Armageddon – the Apocalypse foretold in the more metaphorical chapters of the Bible – to come momentarily, resulting in the
destruction of Europe , and hence of all civilization.
This Puritan vision of Armageddon involved, as Armageddon always has, the necessity for the faithful to wage a holy war against all unbelievers. This
holy war would, first of all, overthrow the decadent elite that ran England, including parliament, King and priests, and second, impose a severe rule
of autocratic but divinely guided cleric-warriors upon the sinful populace, driving Satan from their breasts through the use of panoptic espionage in
every village and town, forced confession, and purgation through the salutary example of public torture and execution, as appropriate.
The Puritans believed that the saints would be blessed by God with every social advantage, especially wealth, since they were industrious believers in
the free market as well as devout Christians. They further believed that individuals who failed to create sufficient wealth to feed their families and
themselves through competitive enterprise were inherently sinful, self-evidently guilty of moral failure, and should be punished by confinement to
debtor prisons and other “tough love” institutions where reprogramming of their defective nervous systems could proceed unhindered by false
notions of “charity”, “compassion”, “noblesse oblige” and “social welfare”.
Some of those Pilgrims who migrated to America lacked the surety of faith that would have enabled them to believe in the historical inevitability of
the English Puritan Revolution, and some of them doubtless saw themselves as God’s Crusaders, spreading the Word of God and a New Social Order to a
New, Godless and heathen world, which must be conquered for the greater glory of God, as part of the Apocalyptic War between Good and Evil.
After a series of Civil Wars, starting in 1639, the Puritans did overthrow the King of England in 1649, in a bloody revolution led by the Puritan
leader Oliver Cromwell. Around ten percent of the total population of England , Ireland and Scotland died during these apocalyptic battles.
The reformist political projects of the Puritan victors were set aside in the aftermath of these civil wars, and Cromwell ruled as a military dictator
until his death. His son was considered unfit by the Army, which constituted the true ruling class of England at that point, and chaos threatened
until 1661, when Charles’ son, Charles II, was restored to the throne, with the consent of Parliament.
No longer able to rule as a Sovereign without peers, Charles II found the country set on a course to become a parliamentary democracy that practiced a
determined form of religious tolerance.
Meanwhile, in the New World , the Puritans were also involved in another flavor of Armageddon. In America , in states where they gained power,
Puritans made sure there were no illusions of religious freedom. The just rule of iron and fire was thought to guarantee a salutary social uniformity
that would be pleasing to the stern and vengeful patriarch in heaven.
When the Pilgrim colonists arrived in New England , landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620, the area was the home of the Wampanoag Indians, members of a
widespread Confederacy of Algonkian speaking peoples known as the League of the Delaware . For over one hundred years, the Wampanoag had defended
themselves against sporadic incursions by European slave traders, trappers and soldiers, so they were familiar with the predatory nature of the white
In Massachusetts , in 1620, Puritan colonists signed the Mayflower Compact, which bound all signatories to the letter and the law of early Christian
practice, Puritan practice, and banished Catholic and Episcopalian ritual and observances. All males who wished to live in the colony had to sign the
Compact. Later Puritan dissenters, including Roger Williams, who founded the Baptist Church, and Anne Hutchinson, a prominent Puritan gentlewoman who
held that matters of faith were private affairs between each individual and God, were banished from the colony.
It was the Catholics, who had brought the world the original practice of enlightenment through torture exemplified in the Inquisition, who introduced
the American Colonies to the principle of religious tolerance, which was a matter of law in the Catholic colony of Maryland .
In 1636 Roger Williams established a new colony in Rhode Island , where all true believing Protestants could participate in civil government, though
not, of course, the Godless Catholic idolators.
The Wampanoag continued their traditional way of life during this period, migrating from place to place as the seasons unfolded. In the spring, the
Indians would pitch their wigwams near rivers, fishing for herring and salmon. In planting season they moved to the forest, where they could hunt
deer. In winter they moved inland for protection from the inclement weather, and lived on stores of food gathered earlier in the year.
Gratitude was an integral part of everyday life for the Wampanoag Indians, not something to be ritually celebrated once a year. As historian and
public school teacher Chuck Larsen, who has Quebeque French, Metis, Ojibwa, and Iroquois ancestors puts it in his article on Thanksgiving, “These
Indians of the Eastern Woodlands called the turtle, the deer and the fish their brothers. They respected the forest and everything in it as equals.
Whenever a hunter made a kill, he was careful to leave behind some bones or meat as a spiritual offering, to help other animals survive. Not to do so
would be considered greedy. The Wampanoags also treated each other with respect. Any visitor to a Wampanoag home was provided with a share of whatever
food the family had, even if the supply was low. This same courtesy was extended to the Pilgrims when they met.”
“We can only guess what the Wampanoags must have thought when they first saw the strange ships of the Pilgrims arriving on their shores. But their
custom was to help visitors, and they treated the newcomers with courtesy. It was mainly because of their kindness that the Pilgrims survived at all.
The wheat the Pilgrims had brought with them to plant would not grow in the rocky soil. They needed to learn new ways for a new world, and the man who
came to help them was called ‘Tisquantum’ (Tis SKWAN tum) or ‘Squanto (SKWAN toe).
“Squanto was originally from the village of Patuxet (Pa TUK et) and a member of the Pokanokit Wampanoag nation. Patuxet once stood on the exact site
where the Pilgrims built Plymouth . In 1605, fifteen years before the Pilgrims came, Squanto went to England with a friendly English explorer named
John Weymouth. He had many adventures and learned to speak English. Squanto came back to New England with Captain Weymouth. Later Squanto was captured
by a British slaver who raided the village and sold Squanto to the Spanish in the Caribbean Islands . A Spanish Franciscan priest befriended Squanto
and helped him to get to Spain and later on a ship to England . Squanto then found Captain Weymouth , who paid his way back to his homeland. In
England Squanto met Samoset of the Wabanake (Wab NAH key) Tribe, who had also left his native home with an English explorer. They both returned
together to Patuxet in 1620. When they arrived, the village was deserted and there were skeletons everywhere. Everyone in the village had died from an
illness the English slavers had left behind. Squanto and Samoset went to stay with a neighboring village of Wampanoags .
“One year later, in the spring, Squanto and Samoset were hunting along the beach near Patuxet. They were startled to see people from England in
their deserted village. For several days, they stayed nearby observing the newcomers. Finally they decided to approach them. Samoset walked into the
village and said ‘welcome,’ Squanto soon joined him. The Pilgrims were very surprised to meet two Indians who spoke English.
“The Pilgrims were not in good condition. They were living in dirt-covered shelters, there was a shortage of food, and nearly half of them had died
during the winter. They obviously needed help and the two men were a welcome sight. Squanto, who probably knew more English than any other Indian in
North America at that time, decided to stay with the Pilgrims for the next few months and teach them how to survive in this new place. He brought them
deer meat and beaver skins. He taught them how to cultivate corn and other new vegetables and how to build Indian-style houses. He pointed out
poisonous plants and showed how other plants could be used as medicine. He explained how to dig and cook clams, how to get sap from the maple trees,
use fish for fertilizer, and dozens of other skills needed for their survival.
“By the time fall arrived things were going much better for the Pilgrims, thanks to the help they had received. The corn they planted had grown
well. There was enough food to last the winter. They were living comfortably in their Indian-style wigwams and had also managed to build one
European-style building out of squared logs. This was their church. They were now in better health, and they knew more about surviving in this new
land. The Pilgrims decided to have a thanksgiving feast to celebrate their good fortune. They had observed thanksgiving feasts in November as
religious obligations in England for many years before coming to the New World .
“The Algonkian tribes held six thanksgiving festivals during the year. The beginning of the Algonkian year was marked by the Maple Dance which gave
thanks to the Creator for the maple tree and its syrup. This ceremony occurred when the weather was warm enough for the sap to run in the maple trees,
sometimes as early as February. Second was the planting feast, where the seeds were blessed. The strawberry festival was next, celebrating the first
fruits of the season. Summer brought the green corn festival to give thanks for the ripening corn. In late fall, the harvest festival gave thanks for
the food they had grown. Mid-winter was the last ceremony of the old year. When the Indians sat down to the ‘first Thanksgiving’ with the
Pilgrims, it was really the fifth thanksgiving of the year for them!
“Captain Miles Standish, the leader of the Pilgrims, invited Squanto, Samoset, Massasoit (the leader of the Wampanoags), and their immediate
families to join them for a celebration, but they had no idea how big Indian families could be. As the Thanksgiving feast began, the Pilgrims were
overwhelmed at the large turnout of ninety relatives that Squanto and Samoset brought with them. The Pilgrims were not prepared to feed a gathering of
people that large for three days. Seeing this, Massasoit gave orders to his men within the first hour of his arrival to go home and get more food.
Thus it happened that the Indians supplied the majority of the food: Five deer, many wild turkeys, fish, beans, squash, corn soup, corn bread, and
berries. Captain Standish sat at one end of a long table and the Clan Chief Massasoit sat at the other end. For the first time the Wampanoag people
were sitting at a table to eat instead of on mats or furs spread on the ground. The Indian women sat together with the Indian men to eat. The Pilgrim
women, however, stood quietly behind the table and waited until after their men had eaten, since that was their custom.
“For three days the Wampanoags feasted with the Pilgrims. It was a special time of friendship between two very different groups of people. A peace
and friendship agreement was made between Massasoit and Miles Standish giving the Pilgrims the clearing in the forest where the old Patuxet village
once stood to build their new town of Plymouth .
[The 1621 feast the Wampanoag gave the Pilgrims Indians was not the official first Thanksgiving. That title goes to a 1637 celebration, proclaimed
“Thanksgiving” by Governor Winthrop, an event honoring those who participated in the massacre of the 700-800 Pequot Indians in Connecticut ]
Larsen continues, “It would be very good to say that this friendship lasted a long time; but, unfortunately, that was not to be. More English people
came to America , and they were not in need of help from the Indians as were the original Pilgrims. Many of the newcomers forgot the help the Indians
had given them. Mistrust started to grow and the friendship weakened. The Pilgrims started telling their Indian neighbors that their Indian religion
and Indian customs were wrong. The Pilgrims displayed an intolerance toward the Indian religion similar to the intolerance displayed toward the less
popular religions in Europe . The relationship deteriorated and within a few years the children of the people who ate together at the first
Thanksgiving were killing one another in what came to be called King Phillip's War.
“At the end of that conflict most of the New England Indians were either exterminated or refugees among the French in Canada , or they were sold
into slavery in the Carolinas by the Puritans. So successful was this early trade in Indian slaves that several Puritan ship owners in Boston began
the practice of raiding the Ivory Coast of Africa for black slaves to sell to the proprietary colonies of the South, thus founding the American-based
On June 20, 1676 - following the victory over King Philip and his people - the council of Charlestown , Massachusetts unanimously voted to proclaim
June 29 as a day of celebration and Thanksgiving. The following statement was read:
"The Holy God having by a long and Continual Series of his Afflictive dispensations in and by the present Warr with the Heathen Natives of this land,
written and brought to pass bitter things against his own Covenant people in this wilderness, yet so that we evidently discern that in the midst of
his judgments he hath remembered mercy, having remembered his Footstool in the day of his sore displeasure against us for our sins, with many singular
Intimations of his Fatherly Compassion, and regard; reserving many of our Towns from Desolation Threatened, and attempted by the Enemy, and giving us
especially of late with many of our Confederates many signal Advantages against them, without such Disadvantage to ourselves as formerly we have been
sensible of, if it be the Lord's mercy that we are not consumed, It certainly bespeaks our positive Thankfulness, when our Enemies are in any measure
disappointed or destroyed; and fearing the Lord should take notice under so many Intimations of his returning mercy, we should be found an Insensible
people, as not standing before Him with Thanksgiving, as well as lading him with our Complaints in the time of pressing Afflictions.”
Larsen continues, “It is sad to think that this happened, but it is important to understand all of the story and not just the happy part. Today the
town of Plymouth Rock has a Thanksgiving ceremony each year in remembrance of the first Thanksgiving. There are still Wampanoag people living in
Massachusetts . In 1970, they asked one of them to speak at the ceremony to mark the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrim's arrival. Here is part of what
"Today is a time of celebrating for you -- a time of looking back to the first days of white people in America . But it is not a time of celebrating
for me. It is with a heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my People. When the Pilgrims arrived, we, the Wampanoags, welcomed them with
open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end. That before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a tribe. That we
and other Indians living near the settlers would be killed by their guns or dead from diseases that we caught from them. Let us always remember, the
Indian is and was just as human as the white people.
“Although our way of life is almost gone, we, the Wampanoags, still walk the lands of Massachusetts . What has happened cannot be changed. But today
we work toward a better America , a more Indian America where people and nature once again are important."
“Our contemporary mix of myth and history about the ‘First’ Thanksgiving at Plymouth developed in the 1890s and early 1900s. Our country was
desperately trying to pull together its many diverse peoples into a common national identity. To many writers and educators at the end of the last
century and the beginning of this one, this also meant having a common national history. This was the era of the ‘melting pot’ theory of social
progress, and public education was a major tool for social unity. It was with this in mind that the federal government declared the last Thursday in
November as the legal holiday of Thanksgiving in 1898.
“In consequence, what started as an inspirational bit of New England folklore, soon grew into the full-fledged American Thanksgiving we now know. It
emerged complete with stereotyped Indians and stereotyped Whites, incomplete history, and a mythical significance as our ‘First Thanksgiving’.”