The Truth of Giving Thanks

Turkey, football, cranberry sauce, pecan and pumpkin pie, friends and family is the sterotypical image many hold for Thanksgiving.

The last Thursday of November is a favorite holiday for many, a special time to bring family and friends together to share a cornucopia of  food, drink, laughter, conversation, and love.

We may gather together in the spirit of gratitude, yet how many of us really know the origin of giving thanks?  Our school days taught the Pilgrims celebrated their first harvest after crossing the shores of America to thank the Wampanoag Indians for helping them survive their first harsh winter, but history and research paints quite a different picture.

Most of us hold the image depicting religious Pilgrims dressed in buckled black hats, shoes and the featherhead dressed Wampanoag Indians for the first Thanksgiving feast.

When in fact the Pilgrims did not wear black, nor were they buckled nor were they teetotalers, for sure, tobacco and beer were their mainstay.  The Wampanoags did not wear feathers, the tribes of the west are known for this.

This was not the first celebration of thanksgiving for the 13 colonies, the French, Spanish and Virginia colonies had days of thanksgiving celebrations earlier.  Those we call Pilgrims called themselves Separatists because they were determined to separate themselves from the Church of England.

They moved further away from the Puritan’s aim of changing the Church from the inside. In the 1700’s the Separatists became known as Pilgrims.

Oppressed in England without the right to worship their God as they desired, they fled to Holland before setting sail for the America.  They arrived on the shores of what we call Plymouth, Massachusetts to find cleared land.

The group found a specific parcel which had once been named Patuxet, a Wampanoag village desolated by disease that killed it’s previous inhabitants.  In November of 1620 they named their new village Plymouth.

The land witnessed another affliction as half of the Separatists died of plague and starvation their first bleak, stark, desolate winter.

After fleeing persecution in England, setting sail from Holland, and losing almost half of their community; spring not only brought new life and warm weather, the breezes also carried a new energy of hope.

Wampanoags, Samoset and Tisquantum approached Plymouth, the land their forefather’s cherished, chatting in broken English with the Separatists.  Tisquantum or Squanto as he was better known, had himself experienced much the same life challenges as the Separatists.  This was his home, where he had grown up.

Squanto became a slave after being abducted and taken to Spain by English fisherman.  Like the Separtists, he broke away from his kidnappers to England and there found men speaking of settling the colonies in the New World.

In his determination to return to his home across the sea in New England, Squanto became part of the quest and accompanied the campaign returning to his homeland.

Upon his return, and a year before the Pilgrims arrived, Squanto walked his old village to witness a massive grave of skeletons.  Having grown up in Patuxet, Squanto was destroyed by the image and visited Chief Massasoit nearby, a fellow Wampanoag village to live.

Once the Separatists took residence in his prior home of Patuxet, Squanto became fast friends understanding and relishing the shared common ground of the determination to be free.

Squanto proved to be quite the ambassador and collaborated to bring Massasoit’s tribe in partnership with the new arrivals who had just gone through a winter hell.

Alliances were created since the Massasoit’s village was racked with epidemics from the illnesses the Europeans brought with them.  They set up a true partnership, Squanto as teacher for harvesting food and finding fish and Massasoit’s need for cannons and guns to protect his weakened tribe from attacks of the west, where the Narraganset Indians occupied.

This turn of events completely changed the Pilgrims fortune as they now had an abundant food supply and knowledge to grow corn and find food for themselves.

With this new found joy and hope for their future, the Pilgrims planned festivities to thank God and commemorate their new life.

Guns were fired and historians are not sure whether the Wampanoags came to help their new friends or the Separatists demonstrated clout in case of a weakened or broken alliance.

What is known is on November of 1621, the wonderful three day festival, where the Wampanoags outnumbered the Pilgrims 2 to 1 was amicable and peaceful.

This wonderful day of peace and well being depicted in many paintings of the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth was soon forgotten amongst ravishes of war in 1670’s and a particularly sinister fight in 1637, amongst the former alliance.

The man who had brought cooperation to the settlers and Indians, Squanto soon was the center of controversy, dying in 1622, weakening the alliance between the two sides.

In 1637, genocide prevailed and 700 Indians were killed, including women and children. Ironically, the Pilgrims celebrated this victory in a thanksgiving festival which did not include their lost friends, the Wampanoags, who at the same time, created a commemoration of a day of mourning.

Pilgrims and Puritans alike celebrated days of thanksgiving as their outlook changed from bleak to prospering.  Presidents advocated days of thanksgiving which took the celebration beyond New England but Jefferson was not one of them…he believed it would breach the separation of church and state.

As necessity and free enterprise are the mother of invention, Godey’s Lady’s Book,  editor, Sarah Josepha Hale, whose magazine included recipes, rallied Abraham Lincoln to declare the last Thursday of November a national holiday.

Another alliance struck as Abraham Lincoln envisioned a way to heal a broken torn Civil War nation and Ms. Hale’s magazine recipes created the tables we now see in many homes on Thanksgiving Day.

Original Pilgrim’s stories were also found, which created much enthusiasm and attention, it was the perfect combination to usher in a holiday for our nation in late 19th century America.

Though deer rather than turkey was the original course, vignettes abounded about Pilgrims breaking bread and eating turkey with Indians in Plymouth, that first shared meal.

Similarly, New York City was swelling with new immigrants and the national holiday managed to bring together diverse culture, customs and ethnicities.  The congress of 1941 instituted Thanksgiving a national holiday.

Though a tragic twist and controversy is attached to one of America’s fondest holidays in the genocide of our Native Americans, their sacrifice established the law of multiplication, gratitude, be celebrated yearly.

The core of Thanksgiving is freedom, albeit, the primary right to worship one’s Creator was the keystone for immigration to the New World. The determination to possess individual rights, resulted in the formation of our Constitution. Our courageous forefathers listened to their inner voice, opened their hearts and insisted on the God given free-willed liberty to express their thoughts in the pursuit of their birthright, visions and dreams.

To this we are eternally grateful and raise our glasses in a chorus of unity, hope and thanksgiving.

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