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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Turkey, Baloney, and History

Few holidays are as uniquely American as Thanksgiving. We unconsciously picture in our minds over-flowing tables, grammar school classrooms decorated with paper turkeys, and idealized Pilgrims and Indians feasting harmoniously at the birth of the nation. But most of this is made up.

"... Yet by the Grace of God..."

There are only two textual sources for the origin of Thanksgiving. The first is a letter by a Pilgrim named Edward Winslow to a friend back in England written in 1622 (modernized here):

"Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty."

The colonists did have reason to be thankful. They had arrived onshore just as winter began at the end of 1620. About half of them quickly perished from exposure, disease or malnutrition. When spring finally came and they started planting, their leader collapsed in the fields and died. With the help of local Indians they managed to plant and raise enough food to survive for six months.

"... All Things in Good Plenty..."

Twenty years later their governor, William Bradford, described that first Thanksgiving in his book, History Of Plimoth Plantation. We've modernized the spelling here from his original manuscript, as first printed in 1898:

"They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health & strength, and had all things in good plenty. As some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were excercised in fishing about cod, & bass, & other fish, of which they took a good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want. And now began to come in store of fowl, as winter aproached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl, there was a great store of wild turkies, of which they took many, besides venison, &c."

That's all the evidence we have about the first Thanksgiving -- two brief paragraphs. On this slender foundation was erected a grand mythology about the value of hard work, nature's bounty, religious freedom, material prosperity, and multicultural harmony.

Thanksgiving's Multiple Meanings

For more than 100 years, Thanksgiving has symbolized the nation's roots, as if the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth in 1620 had been the first Americans. The mythologizers conveniently overlooked the French and Spanish at St. Augustine in 1565, the Spanish conquistadors who founded New Mexico in 1598, the English themselves at Jamestown in 1607, and the French founding of Quebec in 1608 -- not to mention thousands of years of American Indian history.

In recent decades, Thanksgiving evolved beyond this romanticized pseudo-history into a commercial holiday - - the start of the Christmas shopping season -- rather than a time for gratitude and reflection. It's usually also a day for excessive self-indulgence, old-fashioned gender roles, televised football, and snoring uncles in armchairs. But at least we're honest about those customs and don't idealize them into something romantic.

On the other hand, Thanksgiving has also become the annual kickoff for the most generous time of the year. The 30 days from Thanksgiving to Christmas are not just the peak retail season. They're also the peak season for charitable giving. For which we can all be thankful.

So this weekend, travel safely, party heartily, and shop fiercely. But also remember to take at least one moment each day to count your blessings, and perhaps share some of them with those who have less.

:: Posted in Curiosities on November 23, 2011
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