Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. Over the years the holiday has become perhaps the third or fourth most important holiday in the United States, after the Yuletide, the 4th of July, and maybe Halloween. It is a day closely associated with the imagery of Pilgrims and turkeys. Of course, like any holiday, it is steeped in myth and, for that matter, misconceptions.
Most school children will tell you that the Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving after their first harvest. They invited the local Wampanoag people and together they feasted for three days. There is an element of truth to this. The Pilgrims did hold a Thanksgiving feast. And they did invite the local Wampanoag people. Beyond those facts, however, there is much about what is said about Thanksgiving that is not quite true.
In fact, the Pilgrims were not the first European settlers in what would become the United States to celebrate Thanksgiving. On May 23, 1541, Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado held a thanksgiving service after finding water and food in what would later become the Texas panhandle. As far as English settlers are concerned, the first thanksgiving was held by the settlers of Berkeley Hundred in Virginia, an area about 20 miles from Jamestown on December 4, 1619. The charter of the group stated that they should observe the day they arrived as a day of thanksgiving. To this end, the settlers of Berkeley Hundred held a thanksgiving service. The settlers of Berkeley Hundred went a step further and also held thanksgiving services in 1620 and 1621. Berkeley Hundred would later be abandoned following the Indian Massacre of 1622, but the site would later become home to the Berkeley Plantation, home of the important Harrison family (one of the First Families of Virginia, of which President William Henry Harrison was a member). The Pilgrims were hardly the first European settlers in what would become the United States to hold a thanksgiving celebration.
As to the Pilgrims themselves, they were not Puritans as is often believed. The Pilgrims believed that their differences with the Church of England were so great that they chose to worship outside of the conventional organisation of the state church. This is a stark contrast to most Puritans, who only wanted to change the Church of England, not leave it entirely. It is also untrue that the Pilgrims came to what would become the United States to escape religious persecution. As Separatists, the Pilgrims were persecuted to some degree in England, but they left England for the Netherlands where greater religious freedom existed. In the Netherlands the Pilgrims were not persecuted, but they had other reasons to leave for the New World. One reason was that the Pilgrims wanted their children to retain their English identity, culture, and language. There were also economic concerns, as their lives in the Netherlands were not particularly easy. The Pilgrims then decided to migrate to Virginia or somewhere near Virginia.
Of course, there are other myths about the Pilgrims. For instance, even though they are often portrayed today as wearing black, it was not the dominant colour in their choices of clothing. Instead, they tended towards such common colours as reds, greens, blues violets, greys, and earth tones. And while the Pilgrims were on the whole more tolerant than most Puritans, they should perhaps not be regarded as the models of tolerance that they are today. It is true that they were tolerant of the Wampanoag people and the two groups cooperated together for some time. The Pilgrims hardly extended such tolerance to the Pequot people, however, as they began to settle land claimed by the Pequot. Eventually this would erupt into open warfare between the Pequot and the Pilgrims. In the end the Pequot people were massacred by the Separtists. And while the Pilgrims had been persecuted in England, in Massachusetts they would persecute the Quakers themselves.
As to the Pilgrims' Thanksgiving feast itself, we do not know if it included turkey. William Bradford in his History of Plymouth Plantation claims turkey was on the menu at the feast, but the history was written twenty years after the event. A more current account written by Edward Winslow in a letter only mentions corn (by which he meant wheat, after the English usage of the time), Indian corn, peas (not worth the gathering), fowl (which could be almost any bird), and deer. While turkey could have been among the fowl that Edward Winslow mentions, we have to face the fact that it might not have been.
While the Pilgrims did hold a Thanksgiving feast in the fall (at some point between September 21 and November 9) of 1621, they did not repeat the event. Annual thanksgiving celebrations would not come into existence until after 1639 in Connecticut and 1680 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. For the most part Thanksgiving celebrations seem to have been largely a phenomenon restricted to New England. The South largely eschewed such celebration. This was perhaps due to a fundamental difference in Yankee and Southern cultures. The North was settled largely by Puritans, who would quite naturally be drawn to such religious observances. The South was largely settled by Cavaliers (Royalists loyal to King Charles I), who over all preferred Christmas to any sort of thanksgiving observance. Before Thanksgiving could become a national holiday, it took a campaign on the part of Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the women's magazine Godey's Lady's Book. Starting in 1827, Hale lobbied to have Thanksgiving declared a national holiday. She finally succeeded, with Abraham Lincoln signing it into law in 1863.
While I loved Thanksgiving as a child, I must admit that I have somewhat mixed feeling about the holiday today. Much of this is due to the fact that many of the early Thanksgiving celebrations were held by either Pilgrims or Puritans, two groups with whom I have difficulty identifying (my ancestors were Cavaliers). A greater problem I have with the holiday is the fact that some of those early Thanksgiving celebrations, such as one proclaimed by the city council of Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1676, were held in order to give thanks for successfully killing Native Americans. I strongly disapprove of genocide and giving thanks for being successful at it. Certainly, the fact that I am part Native American does not help.
Still, I must admit that I think it is important to set aside a day when people can give thanks to whatever gods they worship. Particularly today I think that too often we focus on those things that are negative in our lives. We complain about our jobs, the government, our spouses (or lack thereof), and our lives in general. Rarely do we stop think about those things that are good in our lives, those things for which we have to be thankful. For myself, ultimately I chose to ignore the Pilgrim imagery and everything else and to focus on Thanksgiving as just that--a time when I can stop and give thanks for that which I am grateful to have in my life.