Thanksgiving: history or myth?

It is often observed that, “Hindsight is better than foresight” or that, “Hindsight is 20/20.” Our memory of things past, however, is not always clear nor accurate. If you’ve ever listened to family stories around the holiday dinner table, you know that often there are disputes over the truthfulness of the teller of the tale. My sisters and I often remember the same event with different details, sometimes different characters, and often a different outcome. Ask witnesses to any accident or traumatic event for their first hand account and it is hard to believe they were all at the same place at the same time.

We retell the many of the same stories repeatedly. Storytelling is an important part of families and of culture. If you tell a child a story about their infancy enough times, he or she may actually develop a “memory” of the event. The line between reality and created memory can become blurred. Sometimes stories become more myth than history as some parts are related more glowingly than others. Some parts of our stories are omitted because they remind of things that are unpleasant or the teller deems them unimportant.

The story of the first Thanksgiving is one of the stories of our nation that is often told in a way that is more myth than history. When we see Norman Rockwell kinds of paintings of Pilgrims, men, women and children, clean scrubbed in crisp white collars and broad hats we feel all warm and fuzzy. Often these residents of the Plymouth Colony are depicted dining with their Native American neighbors at a table covered with a white tablecloth and laden with pumpkin pies, golden turkeys, mashed potatoes and cranberries. Most of us really know that this is a myth, but we keep telling the story.

The truth is that not all the colonists in that first settlement at Plymouth were religious pilgrims seeking refuge from the persecution of the Church of England. More than half of those who boarded the Mayflower were adventurers, businessmen, and others looking for a new start. They were ill-equipped to live in the New World. They were not farmers or hunters. Few seemed to have carpentry skills or any experience living outside of the cities of England or Holland. Half of them died in the first winter. The rest had barely escaped starvation. The next summer they had learned to plant a few crops, to hunt, and to gather food growing abundantly in the land around them. They were helped by their native neighbors. They did, according to the account of Edward Winslow and Governor William Bradford, celebrate their harvest in the fall of 1621. There were indeed Indians who joined their feast.

I would bet their collars were no longer white. They didn’t have any soap left so they might not have been really well scrubbed. The flour they had brought with them had long run out…no pies. They used the term “turkey” to refer to any bird they managed to shoot and dress. They may not have eaten potatoes. Most Europeans thought they were poisonous. There were only four married women left to do the cooking. The rest were adolescents, small children and the 22 men. Surely no white table cloths covered the tables.

We have created a myth about the peaceable relations between the Indians and the colonists. Tisquantum or Squanto, the Indian who became the colonists’ translator and negotiator with the neighboring tribes, had learned English as a result of being kidnapped and sold as a slave. He was brought back to the New World by his owner, an English explorer. The story of early slavery doesn’t end with Squanto. Our history books don’t mention the hundreds of men, women and children who were captured by these colonists and those who came later. They were put on ships bound for Europe where they were sold as slaves. If there was peace between the natives of this “new” world and those who came on the Mayflower, it was short-lived. The Indians raided villages and killed settlers. The colonists celebrated later “thanksgivings”, not just for bountiful harvests, but also for successfully destroying whole Indian villages and massacring their residents.

The people we romantically picture as “Pilgrims” were not as we have remembered them. They were human beings who reacted to the world around them out of fear, ignorance, misunderstanding, greed and hate. They committed what would today be considered acts of genocide. I’m sure they loved their children and many simply wanted to live and provide for their families. They were neither noble nor totally evil. We have told and retold their story so many times that it is difficult to even find an accurate and unbiased historical account of their lives and of the first Thanksgiving.

Likewise, we are told that George Washington followed the tradition by declaring a day of giving thanks. What we are often not told is that the thanks were being given for victorious battles in the Revolutionary War. Likewise, Abraham Lincoln’s setting of the third Thursday in November as a national day of Thanksgiving was to commemorate Union victories in the Civil War. These were not just days dedicated to being grateful for God’s many gifts and abundant harvests.

Without regard to the mythological origins of the day and the reality of the violence and war that was part of its history, a holiday dedicated to being grateful and to recognizing our many blessing is still a good thing. We are often more likely to complain we don’t have enough than to recognize that the earth is an abundant creation with more than we need. Being thankful also admits that we are not totally in control and that we are dependent on not only the generosity of our neighbors, but also gifts from our Creator.

We should not become so caught up in the story of turkeys and cranberries, white collars and the political myths of religious freedom and noble causes that we forget the pain and violence which was also part of the story. Unquestioning belief in this myth feeds our feeling of national superiority, divine predestination, and American exceptionalism. Throughout our history we in this country have acted out of the same kinds of fear, hate, misunderstanding and ignorance that marks all the human story. We can’t undo the past, but we can learn from it. But understanding and true thankfulness can only exist if we look outside the comfortable myths we have created. To do otherwise creates in us an attitude that we deserve all we have been given, not one of real gratitude.

Perhaps along with prayers of thanks, we should include petitions for forgiveness, for humility, and for understanding.

Copyright © 2011 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains