By: Kiel Watson
Growing up in America, we are told all sorts of wonderful tales of the nation’s founding and history, and one that is beaten into our collective consciousness every year is the pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving.
The story goes that after the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock they were joined by their Native American neighbors to celebrate the harvest. All went well and now we eat ourselves into a food coma once a year while half the family watches football and a few people try to sneak out the door to go shopping.
Now that the glow of the turkey has left our ovens it’s time to cover some of the misconceptions about this national holiday started by Abraham Lincoln.
We should first start with the pilgrims.
Generally painted as a group of hardworking pioneers who escaped persecution in England by coming to the New World, they never called themselves that.
In reality the term “pilgrim” was not used to describe these people until the 1870’s, and the initial term used for them is the same as the villains from the Star Wars prequels; separatists.
They were a hardcore conservative religious group that was being persecuted for the same reasons we persecute scientologists today, breaking the (religious) law and holding beliefs that seem ridiculous to others. They did not celebrate Christmas, Easter or any other holiday without a scriptural basis and followed the teachings of John Calvin that believed all humans are born stained with sin.
New England was not the first place the group we now know as the pilgrims went in a bid for religious autonomy. They went to Holland, which was much more relaxed than England in regard to religious freedom but did not stay. A lack of economic prospects coupled with the Catholic Church potentially gaining sway in Holland led them to follow their religious counterparts, the Puritans, to Massachusetts.
The other main ingredient of this first Thanksgiving was the Indians, or specifically the Wampanoag people and the famous Squanto.
While we like to think that the Native Americans were friendly neighbors for the pilgrims it is believed that they were viewed with distrust, although there were initially no hostilities thanks to the pilgrims keeping to themselves instead of attempting to convert the locals. Unfortunately the first Thanksgiving was the peak of relations between the two groups, as it never happened again and hostilities escalated in the years that followed.
Squanto was the notable Native American who spoke English and helped the early Massachusetts settlers such as the pilgrims acclimate to the land and relate to the other natives.
Have you ever wondered how he learned English? Do you remember John Smith from the Pocahontas Disney film? One of the expeditions he led into the Americas, one of his men captured Squanto and brought him back to England in slavery. After winding up in Spain he eventually managed to make his way back to his native land, only to find that his tribe had been decimated by disease and conflict leaving him as its last surviving member.
The first and only Thanksgiving for 250 years didn’t resemble the feast we have today.
While turkeys could theoretically have been on the menu, it is entirely likely that goose or duck may have been the fowl on the menu. The Wampanoag are known to have brought venison to the feast and given the location of the pilgrims it is entirely likely that shellfish or seafood may have been served as well.
Potatoes were entirely unknown in North America at the time, and the settlers lacked sugar for cranberry sauce. They didn’t have ovens sophisticated enough to make a pie even if they had all the ingredients.
After the disintegration of relations between the natives and pilgrims, Thanksgiving became an event with no date. One or more happened a year, with George Washington proclaiming the first official Thanksgiving as a celebration of the end of the War of Independence and singing of the Constitution.
The holiday received its official designation and date in 1863 during the height of the Civil War, with the date being changed for a final time by Franklin Roosevelt in 1941.
Of course the idea of a harvest celebration predates the founding of our country by an untold number of centuries.
Thanksgiving in the U.S. has lost the religious significance it once had, but traditions have always been adopted and co-opted over time.
Don’t worry though, the totally original holiday of Christmas is right around the corner.