The first Thanksgiving took place 400 years ago at Plymouth Rock. What we know of it is as humble as the people who participated in it. There is exactly one paragraph in Edward Winslow's diary entries about the day describing it as a day of giving thanks for the fruits of their labor after a strenuous, challenging, and grief stricken year. Their survival, according to Winslow had been thanks to the help from the Wampanoag people who on the day of thanksgiving showed up with deer they had killed, added it to what the Pilgrims had cooked, and celebrated for 3 days with games, food, and community. Since then, so much of what we understand of this historic day is culturally infused myth, but is that problematic?
In 2020, the 1619 Project from the NY Times, has added to the cultural mythology of the First Thanksgiving by claiming that on that first voyage to the new world the Mayflower had among its passengers, slaves; and that as such the entire reason for the colonies and later the United States of America to exist was to promote and propagate slavery. While there are many aspects to Pilgrim life that is unknown and many aspects of modern Thanksgiving that are historically inaccurate, this aspect is not one of them.
So who were the Pilgrims and why does the story of Thanksgiving still matter?
From the image above, you can see that most of the people who traveled on that first mayflower voyage in 1620 were families with a few single men, most were Pilgrims seeking religious freedom to believe as they saw fit, not as the king thought they should believe. This is, of course, the cornerstone to our country. Everything from that moment on has been founded on this idea, that we are created in the image of God and have the right to seek Him and worship Him as each sees fit, not as the government prefers. Freedom of religion gives way to all freedoms as it is impossible to have religious freedom and not freedom of all thoughts. Notice too, that the Pilgrims for their piety, were also in favor of traveling with their weapons. The manifest list above shows 102 people on the Mayflower.
They arrived in the late New England Autumn. They had no homes, hardly any food remained on the ship, and their clothes were not warm enough for such stark winters. By the First Thanksgiving, a year later in 1621, only the following remained (the figures in light grey did not survive). Most women and children had died, and that First Thanksgiving was a celebration of mostly Pilgrim and Wampanoag men celebrating together that hope remained.
How did these fractured grief stricken families prosper in a wilderness? How does that contribute to the overall story of Thanksgiving and American culture?
That very early Pilgrim establishment struggled to create a city on the hill for its inhabitants. We often think of early Americans as merchants but these very early American were not, nor were they farmers. Most had been city dwellers in London or Amsterdam before sailing for America. They had hoped to arrive at Jamestown in Virginia, but weather did not permit that pushing the Mayflower north to what the Pilgrims would name Plymouth. Having nothing to arrive to, they created a community that would help all survive. Plymouth was in many ways a commune or kibbutz. It provided everyone with shelter and food and everyone provided themselves for the work of creating such things for everyone. In this way the Pilgrims and the Wamanoag were not very different. Both had a communal society. Unlike the Wampanoag, the Pilgrim village also had harsh regulations founded in the Puritan religious principles. Life was highly regulated from appropriate clothing to appropriate speech and more. The people seeking religious tolerance and freedom were not very tolerant of others it would seem. They even had punitive beliefs...Sickness was seen as punishment from God, for example.
Although the economic arrangements did not last long as the Pilgrim did not come from a communal or tribal culture and soon each family had their own home and their own plot of land to grow their own food and create their own goods for trade, the cultural lessons of these first Americans still rings true for us today. 400 years later we are again as a nation ( a large village) seeking to balance our communal survival with our individual ability to thrive. We would do well to learn from our ancestral past and celebrate our Western cultural roots. We are again seeing that those that seek tolerance are often the least tolerant of others. We see that struggle and tragedy can be devastating year long predicament but that God provides hope and happiness all we need do is strengthen our faith and resolve. And we see that Thanksgiving is not a holiday about watching football and eating ourselves into a food coma.
2020 is more like 1620 than you might realize at first glance. Like the Pilgrim we are tasked with strengthening our faith, our resolve, our community, and ourselves and must give Thanks to God for bringing us out of tragedy while remaining true to our cultural roots while befriending those that are different. This year as you celebrate this National holiday of recognizing and praising God for his beautiful and bountiful earth, be sure to do so while remembering all that we have in common with the Pilgrim and all we can learn from their journey and gather together to sing the Lord's praises.