The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, November 26, 2004


Thanksgiving: what history reveals

Sometimes the day after Thanks-giving is a time to suffer from "turkey coma" and function on autopilot out of sheer exhaustion from the feast and all the relatives. If it's hard to keep the spirit going, this article may help to put the holiday in perspective and revive what Abraham Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature." Thanksgiving has had a bit of a bumpy ride through history, but at its core is gratitude for hard work, for friends, for sacrifice, and for life. Here's how it went:

In Massachusetts, Thanksgiving is perhaps a more visual holiday than it is elsewhere. Every year we have Plimoth Plantation restaging the 1621 feast that brought together the Pilgrim settlers who survived the hardships of their first winter here with their Wampanoag neighbors.

The earliest North American thanksgivings

This was not the first Thanksgiving on American shores, nor was it much like the ones we celebrate today. The Wampanoag tribe who joined the English Pilgrims in 1621 was actually celebrating the fifth of six thanksgivings in their religion. Beginning in the early spring with the running of the sap in the maple trees, each of their thanksgivings centered around the planting, blooming, or harvesting of foods that sustained them at different times of the year, and they had been observing these sacred times for centuries before Europeans arrived on these shores.

Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado celebrated the first recorded Christian thanksgiving in 1541 when he and his crew found food, water, and pasturage in the panhandle of what would later become Texas. In a settlement near what is now Jacksonville, Florida, French Huguenot settlers chronicled a service of thanksgiving in 1564. Other thanksgivings have been documented in Maine and Virginia as early as 1607 and as late as 1619.

A gathering of not exactly fast friends

By the time the Pilgrims landed at Plimoth in December of 1620, the New England Native American tribes were preoccupied with an ongoing war between the Iroquois and the Algonkian-speaking tribes (Algonquins), including the Wampanoags. In addition, they had experienced the ravages of diseases left by European traders, not to mention some decimation of their population by early slavers, and they were wary of these new settlers. Even Tisquantum, the famous Native American hero we know as Squanto, had been captured by a British slaver and sold to the Spanish in the Caribbean. He escaped to England and then returned to his native country with a neighboring clansman, the Abenaki Samoset, in 1620. When they arrived at Squanto's village, Patuxet, they found it obliterated by diseases the English slavers had left behind and they went to stay with the nearby Wampanoags.

We all know the story of Squanto's kindness to the Pilgrim settlers, who themselves had suffered great privation. After a seven-week Atlantic crossing into the cold of a Massachusetts December, they were weak and many died of pneumonia, starvation, and exposure. They dug graves at night, so that the Native Americans would not see how many were dying. By spring, they had lost almost half of those who had arrived on the Mayflower. Squanto educated the remaining settlers in the art of survival in New England and acted as a liaison between them and the Wampanoag people.

For their part, the Mayflower passengers were not orthodox Puritans in that they had separated themselves from the main body of that religion in England. Disenchanted with the Anglican Church established by Henry VIII, the English Puritan movement sought to strip the state church of its "corruptions" and interpret the scriptures in a pure and simple manner. Furthermore, they sought to, and later would, overthrow the British government and establish a Puritan state in England. It is perhaps not hard to imagine why they were persecuted there. The Mayflower passengers were partly a group of disenfranchised Puritans who had given up on the idea of overthrowing the British government and had decided, as God's "elect saints," to establish in the new world the "city on the hill" described in the Book of Revelation. Like later English settlers, they were also partly an assortment of adventurers, indentured servants, and others who sought to make their fortunes in the new land. As a whole, it was clear that they intended in the long term to take over the land on which they settled, not share it.

It is doubly remarkable, therefore, that two such groups were able to come together at all. During the course of their three-day feast, the Pilgrims negotiated a treaty with the Wampanoags for land on which they would establish Plimoth Town and both were hospitable. As new settlers flooded into Massachusetts Bay, English expansion would eventually trigger Native American attacks, King Phillip's War, and the near extinction of the Wampanoag people, but for three days in 1621, both business and feasting were conducted in peace and apparent friendship.

Giving thanks for "our" victories and "their" defeats

A generation or two later and for the next 200 years, Thanksgivings became associated with the defeat of enemies in war. The first thanksgiving proclamation, issued in Charlestown in 1676, mandated a day of thanks for "reserving many of our Towns from Desolation Threatened, and attempted by the Enemy [Native American tribes], and giving us especially of late with many of our Confederates many signal Advantages against them" In 1782 the Continental Congress declared November 28 a day of thanksgiving to celebrate the founding of our new nation upon the defeat of "the artful and unwearied attempts of the common enemy," Britain. President George Washington proclaimed the next day of thanksgiving in 1789, thanking "that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the goodfor His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war" and for the prosperity of the new nation. Washington provided money, food, and beer that day to debtors in New York City's prisons.

Only Presidents Washington, Adams, and Madison declared national thanksgivings in the years that followed. Presidents Jefferson and John Quincy Adams thought the practice infringed on the separation of church and state, and there was no national thanksgiving after Madison until 1863.

Thanksgiving brings out the best of both sides in 1863

Writer and editor Sarah Josepha Hale began in the late 1820s to spearhead a campaign to establish a national day of thanksgiving. In the 1830's some states declared their own days, and by 1852, Hale succeeded in recruiting 29 states to declare Thanksgiving Day to be the last Thursday of November. In September of 1863, she wrote to President Abraham Lincoln, pleading for the "day of our annual Thanksgiving [to be] made a National and fixed Union Festival." Lincoln, in the midst of the Civil War, responded in less than a week, proclaiming the last Thursday in November a national "day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father," in gratitude for the many blessings of prosperity and progress, and "fervently implor[ing] 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, tranquility, and Union." The president provided Union soldiers with turkeys and chickens that day, and even though they received no such supplies, the Confederate soldiers held their fire all day out of respect for the Union holiday.

Business creates a political Thanksgiving predicament

Following the Civil War, U.S. presidents maintained the national holiday of Thanksgiving in November for 75 years. In that time, it evolved from a victory thanksgiving back into a celebration of blessings and plenty, the celebrants of the 1621 feast became its symbols, and any tension between them was conveniently erased. In 1939, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt allowed secularity to assert itself in the holiday by declaring Thanksgiving to be the next-to-last Thursday of the month in response to requests from the National Retail Dry Goods Association to extend the Christmas shopping season. New York department store Macy's, of course, had long had a bead on the Christmas shopping season. They started their annual Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1927, with three elephants wearing signs advertising "Macy's" "Christmas" "Parade" leading the event. However, Roosevelt's proclamation caused an unusual outcry: the governors of only 23 states observed the new "Democratic" Thanksgiving date. The governors of 23 more states declared the more traditional last Thursday of the month as "Lincoln's Republican" holiday, and Texas and Colorado celebrated both days.

Today's Thanksgiving recipe

Congress resolved this mess in 1941 with legislation that took the scheduling of Thanksgiving out of the hands of the executive branch, establishing it as the fourth Thursday in November. This ensured that it would fall on the last Thursday five out of every seven years. Here it has stayed ever since, and despite all the vicissitudes of war, conquest, and materialism, it remains a cherished holiday that brings us together with loved ones, reflects our nation's history and its blessings, and reminds us of the importance of sharing those blessings with all.

2004 The Carlisle Mosquito