The real Thanksgiving

(Photo: Unsplash/Timothy Eberly)

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds Christians that they are surrounded by a great "cloud of witnesses." (NRSV) That "cloud" has continued to grow in size since then. In this monthly column we will be thinking about some of the people and events over the past 2,000 years that have helped make up this "cloud." People and events that have helped build the community of the Christian church as it exists today.

1621-2021: a momentous anniversary

This year marks a hugely important event in the history of the US and its Christian heritage. The autumn ('fall') of 2021 is the 400th anniversary of the very first 'Thanksgiving', which took place in 1621. Well, that is to say, it both is – and isn't!

That a highly important event took place, following the first successful harvest at the newly established Plymouth Colony, is a matter of record. The previous November, 102 settlers had arrived at Cape Cod after a very difficult voyage from England. Various setbacks meant they arrived several months later than expected, as a New England winter was starting.

To make matters worse they had arrived in the wrong place. They had intended to settle well to the south, on the Hudson River, which was then in the northern parts of the English colony of Virginia (founded in 1607). However, difficult seas and winter storms had forced them to abandon their journey down the eastern seaboard of North America.

As a result, they first went ashore at the northern tip of Cape Cod and later shifted across the bay to set up their settlement in a place they named 'Plimoth.' By the next spring half of them were dead. It was a traumatic start to a venture which they believed was one they had been called to by God, to establish a 'New Jerusalem' in the 'New World.'

Yet the colony survived. After a desperate 12 months, the assistance of Native Americans from the Wampanoag confederacy and the use of North American seed had finally brought in a harvest that would see the colony through its second winter.

We should recall that it was a Native American, named Tisquantum, who had taught them how to fertilize the cornfields with dead fish, and to plant both beans and squash, once the corn had started growing, which could then grow up the corn stalks. To mark this bringing in of the ripened crops they held a harvest festival. It was a time to show their gratitude to God for their deliverance. 'Pilgrims' and local Native Americans sat down together at that momentous meal.

However, things were a bit more complex than that in 1621. It was technically not a 'Thanksgiving.' The Mayflower Pilgrims were very familiar with those occasional events. These were solemn observances, with long services, preaching, prayer and praise. They did not officially have one of these until July 1623. That year, faced with a crisis occasioned by a drought and food shortages, a 'Day of Humiliation' was declared when, through fasting and prayer, the colony repented of its sins that they believed had caused God to close up the sky as a judgement.

For some nine hours they prayed under a cloudless sky. Then, by evening, the clouds were gathering. The next day it rained and did not stop for two weeks. Seeing the revival of their withered corn, the Pilgrims called for a 'Day of Thanksgiving.' Although today we focus on the harvest celebration in 1621, this event in 1623 was arguably the first 'Thanksgiving' (as the Pilgrims would have termed it) in the history of Plymouth Colony.

What actually occurred in 1621 was a Harvest Home celebration. We do not know exactly when the event happened either, but it probably took place in late October or early November. The present date of Thanksgiving is too late in the year. The Wampanoag leader, Massasoit, and his entourage were there too (numbering some 90 men). However, whether they were invited in gratitude for their assistance or simply turned up because food was available, we cannot now tell.

What is strange is that when William Bradford later compiled the famous record of the colony, entitled 'Of Plymouth Plantation,' he failed to mention the event at all. He just said the Pilgrims enjoyed "good plenty" after the harvest of 1621. He had clearly forgotten the event! If it was not for the 115 words preserved in a document called 'Mourt's Relation,' we would know nothing about it at all. This account, probably written by a leading colonist named Edward Winslow, was penned in order to persuade those back in London that the colony was worth further investment.

It says that, after the harvest was safely brought in, four men were sent off on a day of duck-hunting to provision a special celebration. This celebration included marching and the firing of muskets, viewed by both the Pilgrims and Massasoit and his companions. This was then followed by a feast that lasted three days! To this feast the Native Americans added a contribution of five deer. We can imagine the colonists making corn bread and corn porridge and cooking the duck and venison. Not a plate of turkey or a bowl of cranberry sauce was in sight!

Thanksgiving after 1621

'Thanksgivings' became a major contribution of the Puritans to the heritage to the US. Such Thanksgivings were practised by a number of New England settlements. These early events were days of prayer, fasting and thanksgiving to God for his mercies. During the seminal events of the American Revolution, the Continental Congress designated one or more days of Thanksgiving a year, the first occurring in 1777.

Then, in 1789, George Washington issued the very first Thanksgiving proclamation in the name of the newly formed government of the United States. This was to give thanks for victory and the historic ratification of the US Constitution. Other days of Thanksgiving were announced during the presidencies of John Adams and James Madison. These were unambiguous legacy-events which arose from the Puritan past and from the national myth of North American origins. They were things that 'Americans' did, and they were indebted to their Christian roots. Illustrative of this is the fact that Thomas Jefferson – a deist who was sceptical on the subject of divine intervention – did not declare any Thanksgivings during his presidency.

In 1817, New York State was the first to announce an annual Thanksgiving holiday. Other states followed, although there was no unanimity regarding the day(s) chosen. Interestingly, it was largely unknown in the southern states; but they, of course, lacked the Puritan heritage. The exception rather proved the rule. What these Thanksgivings were doing was moving away from the formal and solemn events that seventeenth-century New Englanders would have recognised as a 'Thanksgiving', and instead moving towards one of community and family celebration and festivities.

This was assisted by a re-focusing of the event on the famous Harvest Home celebrated by the Pilgrims at Plymouth in the autumn of 1621 and which they never actually called a 'Thanksgiving'! But it offered a more congenial model for a community celebration which had Puritan roots, but which was slowly losing its religious character.

Echoes of its Puritan roots remained though. When President Lincoln called for a Thanksgiving at the height of the Civil War, in 1863, it was for more than community feasting and celebration. God's provisions were to be "solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged" and the nation was called to repent of the division that had led to civil war.

After the Civil War ended in 1865, traditions of how to mark Thanksgivings varied from region to region but continued the trend of community festivities seen before the war; and harking back to 1621 rather than to the fasts and prayers of the alternative customs. Consequently, Thanksgivings became marked by community events, sports, and feasts, as well as family meals. People in fancy dress spilled onto the streets of New York in the 1890s; in the 20th century this would transfer to the peculiarly American way of celebrating Halloween (also autumnal in its setting).

In 1863 Lincoln placed Thanksgiving on the final Thursday in November. In this position it replaced an earlier celebration (held in many places before the Civil War, on 25 November) that had celebrated the evacuation of British troops from the US after the American Revolution. Once established there, Thanksgiving was celebrated on that day every year until 1939. In that year President Franklin D Roosevelt moved it by a week in an attempt to encourage retail sales during the Great Depression. The plan was to give a longer gap between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The move was widely criticised and dismissed as 'Franksgiving.' As a result, in 1941 the president reluctantly relented and Thanksgiving returned to the fourth (usually the last) Thursday in November.

As Thanksgiving developed post-Civil War, it consciously emphasised its putative 1621 roots, with an emphasis on food native to North America and allegedly eaten during that Harvest Home celebrated in Plymouth a year after the arrival of the Mayflower. Hence the turkey, the cranberry sauce, the mashed potato, etc. Echoes of its Puritan roots lie in traditions in some families of recounting blessings and saying grace before eating; in many twenty-first-century homes however, it is simply now a family meal.

In school and community events, the presence of buckle-hatted Puritan boys and girls in linen caps recalls aspects from the 17th century myth. The shift of fancy-dress to Halloween since the late 1950s has allowed Puritan costumes to once again re-colonise the event. The presence of Native Americans at the first meal provided an opportunity to celebrate apparent multi-cultural harmony, a century after the last 'Indian Wars' finally defeated Native American resistance to the US.

An event worth remembering

On reflection, there is something very moving about the mixed community which sat down together to eat the produce of the first harvest in 1621. It is easy to be cynical about the way this can be represented in modern, perhaps superficial, pageants. But sit down together they did. Much worse could have happened and later did happen. But not in 1621, despite the prejudices and anxieties of the new English arrivals. That this relationship broke down so terribly and bloodily in the next generation should not obscure the fact that Pilgrims and local Native Americans generally worked together remarkably harmoniously in the early years.

That does not deny the violence which accompanied Plymouth Colony's relationship with some other Native Americans, or the fact that the arrival of Europeans eventually led to catastrophe for the indigenous peoples, but it reminds us that war and destruction were not inevitable. Other paths were possible. And we cannot hold the Pilgrims personally responsible for the terrible impact of European diseases.

What occurred in 1621 was a moment of celebration that briefly united different people and cultures in celebration and gratitude for the produce of the land. That is worth remembering.

The last words should go to someone who was there in 1621. Years later, William Bradford looked back at the origin of the little colony, and described it in a moving verse, which expressed his Christian faith in the provision of God:

"In wilderness he did me guide,

And in strange lands for me provide.

In fears and wants, through weal and woe,

A Pilgrim passed I to and fro."

Martyn Whittock is an evangelical and a Licensed Lay Minister in the Church of England. He taught history for thirty-five years in comprehensive schools and is now a writer and columnist. As the author, or co-author, of fifty-four books, his work covers a wide range of historical and theological themes. Three of his recent books, which explore the history of the Puritan settlement in North America, are: When God Was King: Rebels and Radicals of the Civil War and Mayflower Generation (2018), Mayflower Lives: Pilgrims in a New World and the Early American Experience (2019), and Trump and the Puritans (2020).

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