by Kim Pederson…….
This is the week when many Americans celebrate Thanksgiving Day, a holiday that commemorates the original gustatory sitdown of the pilgrims of Plymouth with their Native American friends and benefactors in 1621. If you looked around while you were out shopping trying to get a jump on Black Friday, you might just have seen some Thanksgiving decorations — cardboard cutouts of autumn leaves, sheaves of grain, and turkeys wearing pilgrim hats — peeking out sheepishly from among the blinking Christmas trees, dancing Santa Claus figures, and bobbing, nose-glowing Rudolf lawn ornaments that magically appeared everywhere at 12:01 a.m. on November 1.
Except for the president pardoning a turkey (which President Obama did on national television), Thanksgiving doesn’t get much air time or store time except for grocery departments and NFL football. Still, even without a media bombardment equal to what we get for the December holiday, most everyone in this country likely carries the notion of an idyllic First Thanksgiving (as pictured above) in their heads.
If you believe Wikipedia, “in the United States, the modern Thanksgiving holiday tradition is commonly, but not universally, traced to a sparsely documented 1621 celebration at Plymouth in present-day Massachusetts.” If you believe Ric Burns’ documentary The Pilgrims, which aired as an American Experience episode on PBS last night, things were just a little different back then. The latter tells us that the pilgrims arrived in Plymouth in November 1620 and that half of the company of 102 died over the winter, with those who had the strength left propping up their dead and dying with their weapons against trees as a “ghost” guard perimeter around the colony. The pilgrims did manage to have a harvest in 1621, using seed corn they found and stole from a diseased-ravaged Wampanoag village, and they likely gave thanks for having food on hand for the next winter but there is no solid record of it. The colony’s governor William Bradford, for example, makes no mention of a Thanksgiving celebration in his extensive history of the colony.
Ironically, it was the return of Bradford’s “lost” manuscript to America from England in the 1860s that prompted, according to Burns, President Lincoln to declare a nationwide Thanksgiving Day in 1863 that would occur on the final Thursday in November. The rest, as they don’t say, is the usual ongoing mix of myth and history.
When you think about it, though, or at least when I think about it, all of the above is neither here nor there. Having an occasion that gets family and friends together to celebrate and toast each other in the many different ways we do deserves thanks in and of itself. Even if the Plymouth pilgrims never had their Thanksgiving Day, the story of it, to put it in Bradford’s words, has worked in this fashion: “As one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone unto many.” I hope this is true. If there’s one thing the world needs desperately these days, it’s more light.
* “The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, 1914. Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.
Visit Kim Pederson’s blog RatBlurt: Mostly Random Short-Attention-Span Musings.