Looking at the Alleged Myths of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is somewhat of a forgotten holiday. Nestled tightly between Halloween and Christmas, there is little consumer demand for the Thanksgiving items which usually occupy only a few small shelves in most stores. I guess its understandable. There isn't nearly as much call for wooden Pilgrims as there is for skeletons or nutcrackers. Yet, while Thanksgiving isn't as important on the Christian calendar as Christmas (and it goes without saying that Halloween isnt' exactly a favorite among Christians), Thanksgiving holds a great deal of meaning for Christians. It is one day set aside specifically to give thanks to God (so many people forget the highlighted part) for the blessings He has bestowed upon us and our country.

But it is that "to God" part of the equation that seems to cause people to want to debunk the holiday -- especially the first Thanksgiving in 1621. For example, the History News Network at George Mason University has published a short sheet of the Top 10 Myths About Thanksgiving. Several of the myths noted by the article have little to do with Thanksgiving itself, but relate to the lives of the people we now call Pilgrims generally. Thus, the article notes that the Pilgrims didn't live in log cabins (for those of you who confused the Pilgrims with Abraham Lincoln), that the Pilgrims didn't always wear black (apparently, they preferred earth-tones -- something that would have let them fit in nicely in Oregon), and that Puritans didn't hate sex (for those who thought that the Pilgrims were not really human beings).

Similarly, Mayflower Myths on History.com mostly points out several myths about the pilgrims that don't seem to have any impact on the celebration of the holiday itself. Some, in fact, don't even seem like myths at all. I know that I had never heard that the Pilgrims had brought furniture from England on the Mayflower, so the busting of that myth wasn't too disappointing. (Although, I have to admit my extreme disappointment to learn that the Pilgrims didn't wear those really cool buckles on their shoes....)

Not surprisingly, the myth article with the most critical eye towards the Pilgrims was entitled Deconstructing the Myths of "The First Thanksgiving" by Judy Dow (Abenaki) and Beverly Slapin. Abenaki is a Native American name -- it is the name of a subdivision of the Algonquian nation of northeastern North America. Still, even this myth article includes at least one myth that isn't very myth-y, i.e., the well-known fact that the Pilgrims didn't actually originally set foot on Plymouth Rock. (Heck, I didn't think that anyone really thought that....)

Who was first?

A few of the alleged myths on the three pages involve Thanksgiving, but have little impact on the essentials of the celebration. For example, two of the three pages note that the Pilgrims didn't actually hold the first Thanksgiving. According to the debunkers, thanksgivings have been held for centuries. In America alone, the English settlers held an earlier day of thanksgiving in Jamestown in 1619. The Spanish held thanksgiving celebrations in 1598. And, of course, who knows exactly how many thanksgivings that the Native Americans held in the thousands of years they occupied the continent before the arrival of the English invaders. According to the Deconstructing article, "for Native peoples, thanksgiving comes not once a year, but every day, for all the gifts of life. To refer to the harvest feast of 1621 as 'The First Thanksgiving' disappears [sic] Indian peoples in the eyes of non-Native children."

While I don't mean to denigrate the thanksgiving for all the gifts of life celebrated by the Native peoples every day, Christians have also been giving thanks to God for everything for centuries as well. (When I sit at the dinner table and say a prayer with my family before eating I am engaging in a thanksgiving in that sense.) Harvest feasts are (and have been) common not only on the North American continent, but around the world. Still, no one is saying that people didn't have thanksgiving celebrations before the 1621 wingding by the Pilgrims. The reason that this particular feast is referenced as the first Thanksgiving feast is because it is the first feast held by a Christian people giving thanks to God for the general bounty that he had provided in America. And regardless of your opinion of the good or bad that has come of it, since the English speaking immigrants from Europe have become the dominant culture of the United States, it is important that it was a feast of thanksgiving by the Pilgrims.

Turkey, anyone?

Another myth that concerns what actually happened at the first Thanksgiving (which I will continue to call it, myth or no) but which is exceedingly silly is the question of whether the Pilgrims and the Native Americans had turkey at that feast. The HNN article says: "No one knows if they had turkey, although they were used to eating turkey. The only food we know they had for sure was deer." While my Thanksgiving celebration will not hinge on knowing exactly what the Pilgrims feasted upon, I do find it interesting that this myth should be allegedly debunked by an admission that no one knows the full menu of what was eaten. In fact, we have good reason to believe that turkeys may have been on the menu based upon William Bradford's account of what was happening around that same time in his book Of Plimoth Plantation where Bradford says:

They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck of meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.

So, if the Pilgrims had a "great store" of wild turkeys, why would one suspect that they would withhold them from the general feast? (This is pure speculation, but perhaps historians are going with the "what we expect to find if X happened theory." For example, historians certainly say that if turkeys had been served at the first Thanksgiving, then Edward Winslow's earlier account would have included them on the list of items served. In a similar way, perhaps historians note that if turkey had been served at the 1621 feast, we would expect to find records of complaint about turkey leftovers, but these are notably absent from the histories.)

Giving thanks to God isn't religious?

But the most egregious myths are those directed at the Christian motivation of the Pilgrims. They claim ulterior motives for the Pilgrims than those that have historically (ironically) been believed. For example, HNN article claims that Thanksgiving was not about religion. (Actually, I agree it was not about "religion", but I suspect that he would lump into the "religion" category the heartfelt desire to give thanks to God for his bounty so let's go with it.) The HNN article argues:

Paraphrasing the answer provided above, if Thanksgiving had been about religion, the Pilgrims never would have invited the Indians to join them. Besides, the Pilgrims would never have tolerated festivities at a true religious event. Indeed, what we think of as Thanksgiving was really a harvest festival. Actual "Thanksgivings" were religious affairs; everybody spent the day praying. Incidentally, these Pilgrim Thanksgivings occurred at different times of the year, not just in November.

Jeremy Bangs, another historian and former Chief Curator of the Plimouth Plantation, responds in his article entitled The Truth About Thanksgiving Is that the Debunkers Are Wrong:

Responding to this in reverse order:

(1) that Thanksgivings were not limited to November does not mean that the first one held by the colonists in Plymouth (presumably in September or early October) was not a thanksgiving.

(2) The modern idea that in a religious thanksgiving “everyone spent the day praying” is inconsistent with the only description of the specific activities of a definitely identified thanksgiving day in early Plymouth Colony -- the thanksgiving held in Scituate in 1636 when a religious service was followed by feasting. (See my book The Seventeenth-Century Town Records of Scituate, Massachusetts (Boston: NEHGS, 2001), vol. 3, p. 513.)

(3) That "what we think of as Thanksgiving was really a harvest festival" (as if that meant it could not have been a thanksgiving) repeats Deetz’s incorrect opinion that an English harvest festival was non-religious or even irreligious.

(4) That the Pilgrims "would never have tolerated festivities at a true religious event" presumes a narrow definition of what a true religious event was before arriving through circular argument at a denial that what the Pilgrims did was such an event, because it differed from the axiomatic definition. (Ever been to a midwestern church picnic? Did tossing horseshoes and playing softball make it non-religious?)

(5) The Pilgrims attempted to pattern their religious activities according to biblical precedent. The precedent for a harvest festival was the Feast of Tabernacles, Sukkoth (Deut. 16: 13-14), lasting seven days. The biblical injunction to include the "stranger" probably accounts for the Pilgrims' inviting their Native neighbors to rejoice with them. Besides Sukkoth, the Pilgrims’ experience of a Reformed Protestant thanksgiving every year in Leiden probably contributed to what they considered appropriate. The October 3 festivities commemorated the lifting of the Siege of Leiden in 1574, when half the town had died (an obvious parallel with the experience of the Pilgrims in the winter of 1620-21). Leiden’s ten-day festivity began with a religious service of thanksgiving and prayer, followed by meals, military exercises, games, and a free fair. The common assumption that the Pilgrims’ 1621 event should be judged against the forms taken by later Puritan thanksgivings - whether or not those are even correctly understood - overlooks the circumstance that the Pilgrims did not have those precedents when they attempted something new, intentionally based not on old English tradition but on biblical and Reformed example.

Welcoming guests, invited or no

The Deconstructing article (which is extremely negative towards the Pilgrims who are accused therein of stealing corn from the natives without restitution and coming to America to take the lands already inhabited) claims that the Pilgrims didn't invite the natives to the feast.

According to oral accounts from the Wampanoag people, when the Native people nearby first heard the gunshots of the hunting colonists, they thought that the colonists were preparing for war and that Massasoit needed to be informed. When Massasoit showed up with 90 men and no women or children, it can be assumed that he was being cautious. When he saw there was a party going on, his men then went out and brought back five deer and lots of turkeys. (8)

In addition, both the Wampanoag and the English settlers were long familiar with harvest celebrations. Long before the Europeans set foot on these shores, Native peoples gave thanks every day for all the gifts of life, and held thanksgiving celebrations and giveaways at certain times of the year. The Europeans also had days of thanksgiving, marked by religious services. So the coming together of two peoples to share food and company was not entirely a foreign thing for either. But the visit that by all accounts lasted three days was most likely one of a series of political meetings to discuss and secure a military alliance. Neither side totally trusted the other: The Europeans considered the Wampanoag soulless heathens and instruments of the devil, and the Wampanoag had seen the Europeans steal their seed corn and rob their graves. In any event, neither the Wampanoag nor the Europeans referred to this feast/meeting as “Thanksgiving.” (9)

First, let's be clear: there is no record of the Pilgrims inviting the natives to the feast. Here's what Edward Winslow's account says about the natives:

they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty."

Keep in mind that this account and William Bradford's later more general account in Of Plimouth Plantation are, according to the Plimouth Plantation, the "only" two "primary sources for the events of autumn 1621 in Plymouth." Thus, we don't know how the natives came to be among the Pilgrims. Certainly, it is possible that they were attracted by the gunshots (and such a claim is consistent with the Winslow's account which associates the "exercise[] of our Arms" with the arrival of the native peoples).

At the same time, the basis for the claim that the natives thought that the Pilgrims were preparing for war as stated in the Deconstructing article is fairly flimsy. The claim is based upon a nearly 400 year old apparently unrecorded oral tradition which comes to the authors through a National Geographic publication for kids. As near as I can find in Internet research, this claim is not made in any of Ms. Bruchac's articles which are available on-line. The idea that only men arrived is consistent with Winslow's account but may be accounted for by the practice at the time (in our admittedly male-centered past) was to speak of the men and not the women and children.

Still, it is apparent that regardless of how the natives arrived and for what reason, they were invited to participate in the feast and did so for three days -- including providing deer for the festivities. But here's the bigger issue: were the natives most likely invited for political purposes, i.e., for "one of a series of political meetings to discuss and secure a military alliance"? What evidence is there that the Pilgrims had less than charitable motives at this time? They were having a celebration of the bounty that God had bestowed and admitted that the natives had assisted their survival through the hard, cruel winter and assistance in farming and hunting methods.

Obviously there was mistrust between the two peoples. The Pilgrims were originally quite frightened by the natives who they expected to attack them. The Wampanoag (in the words of the Deconstructing article article) "had seen the Europeans steal their seed corn and rob their graves." But this viewpoint tends to disregard the fact that friendly gestures based on a true Christian motive of love for neighbors could overcome these initial obstacles. In other words, the real motivation that should be questioned is the motivation of the people who make claims that the Pilgrims had to have some ulterior motives in welcoming the natives to their Thanksgiving feast.

So what's at the core?

Certainly, the truth claims of Christianity do not rise or fall on the story of the First Thanksgiving. But I think that we can say that the debunkers have not really successfully struck at the heart of the account: the Pilgrims, thankful to God for their survival and the bounty of harvest (helped in large part by the Wampanoag natives), held a feast to give thanks to God. During the feast, which lasted three days, the Wampanoags arrived and were welcomed in Christian charity and fellowship to the feast by the Pilgrims. The Wampanoags not only accepted, they hunted and brought additional provisions to make the feast even better. Yes, the relationship fell apart (largely due to the later influx of settlers with more profit than the teaching of the Great Prophet in mind), but for this one small sliver of history, Christian settlers, practicing Christian love for their neighbors consistent with their beliefs and the Wampanoags, apparently acting in friendship towards the settlers, co-existed in friendship.

That (together with the expected annual drubbing of the Detroit Lions) is something to celebrate.


Jason Pratt said…
That was a fine article, Bill!

(Though I will point out, that some Christians are quite fond of "Halloween", having named it that originally. {g} "All Hallows Eve", before Nov 1, "All Saints Day".)

BK said…
Personally, I don't have a problem with Halloween -- I enjoy going trick or treating with the kids. But many of the people I know in my more evangelical circles hand out tracts and explain how evil it is. Whatever.
Jason Pratt said…
True, that.

The funniest thing, is that some of those same people both support the idea of "Judgment Night" houses (less popular around here than they used to be, but I hear one was still held this year in my area) while also condemning the RCCs for picking up and using an established 'pagan' holiday and its tropes for any ostensibly 'Christian' purpose--worse, the RCCs used to go out of their way to emphasize some kind of ethical horror on Halloween, as part of their supposedly 'Christian' celebration of it! No real Christian would do that!


(Which, by the way, reminds me that I actually have a "Halloween episode" for the Cadre Journal this year, though it's been delayed several weeks by my contraction of the pseudo-flu. I still hope to post it up later. Maybe during Thanksgiving break. {lol!})

Anyway, still a great article Bill. {s!}


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