Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Are You Ready for Thanksgiving?

So you’ve bought your turkey, the cranberries, and pumpkin pie filling. The guests have already been invited. You’re almost ready for Thanksgiving. Or, are you?
Harvest festivals have been part of human history since the beginning of agriculture.  With harvesting completed and food stored away for the winter months, those early tillers of the soil celebrated the results of their labor.  They also recognized their dependence on elements and forces beyond their efforts that made harvest possible. 

Jews celebrated harvest thanksgivings in several periods throughout the year.  In medieval times many Europeans observed the Feast of St. Martin of Tours on November 11, and in England "Harvest Home" celebrations began in the sixteenth century.  Today, we no longer call these "Harvest Home" celebrations, but "Thanksgiving."  Thanksgiving Day is observed on the second Monday of October in Canada, while in the United States it is on the fourth Thursday of November.

At this time of the year here on the high desert in central Oregon it is a little difficult to enter into the spirit of an agricultural "harvest" festival. Here, the harvest was gathered in September and October. And, if the truth be told, the celebration of a "harvest festival" at the end of November is late, even for Plymouth, Massachusetts

Actually, the "first" Thanksgiving in America is subject to debate.  Some Native American tribes had been having harvest thanksgiving festivals for centuries, as had the Europeans who came to these shores.  Perhaps the first observance of the latter was entirely religious and involved neither harvest nor feasting.  On December 4, 1619, 39 English settlers arrived at the mouth of the James River in Virginia.  Their charter required that their arrival date be observed yearly as a day of thanksgiving to God.  Their thanksgiving was not for bounty, but for the fact that they had survived.  That was reason enough for an annual observance of thanksgiving.

Most people, however, associate the first Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims who arrived a year later on November 11, 1620.  Escaping religious persecution in Europe, these colonists attempted to reach the Virginia colony.  Their sixty-seven day voyage ended instead several hundred miles north on Cape Cod -- in what is now Massachusetts.  At a recently vacated Indian settlement, they discovered corn set aside for spring planting.  Already on a starvation diet, they were more concerned about their immediate need for food than for anyone's future crop, so they took ten bushels of the Indian's seed corn in order to survive the winter.

In the summer of 1621, less than a year after their arrival and after a terrible winter when half of the colonists died, hope was renewed by a good corn crop. Squanto, a member of the Wampanoag nation who had previously visited England and knew how to speak English, helped the colonists during their first winter and spring, showing them how to prepare the fields and plant corn.  He was also the Pilgrims' go-between with other tribes, helping arrange the pact that allowed the Pilgrims and Indians to live in peace.[1]

The first corn harvest brought rejoicing, and Governor William Bradford decreed that a three-day feast be held.  Chief Massasoit was invited to share the celebration, and share he did.  Ninety members of the tribe came with him -- probably to celebrate their traditional harvest feast.  The Pilgrims didn't have enough food for three days of feasting with such numbers, so the Indians went out and brought back most of what they ate at the feast: Five deer, many wild turkeys, fish, beans, squash, corn soup, corn bread, and berries.[2]  Sweet strong wine from wild grapes supplemented the feast.

The feast lasted for days, with little attention to religious services.  Some believe that the Pilgrims chose to keep their harvest festival secular because they disapproved of mingling religious and secular celebrations.  It seems to have been a one-time occasion, with no thought to future celebrations.  Although not a religious observance, the Pilgrims celebrated their surviving that first disastrous year and the bounty of the land they had discovered.  It was also a celebration with the people who had made their survival possible.  It was a grateful acknowledgement of the way their life, indeed survival, was dependent on the Native Americans.

Serious questions have been raised about the nature and purpose of Thanksgiving Day observances in the subsequent one hundred years.  William B. Newell, a Penobscott Indian and former chair of the anthropology department at the University of Connecticut, says that the first "official" Thanksgiving Day was proclaimed by the Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637 -- fifteen years after the Pilgrims' celebration at Plymouth.  The purpose of this celebration, says professor Newell, was to celebrate the massacre of 700 Indian men, women and children at their annual Green Corn Dance (their Thanksgiving) in the previous year.[3] The murder of a white trader and Indian-kidnapper had been the excuse for the Puritans to make war on the Pequots.[4] After that there were massacres on both sides.  For the next hundred years, says Newell, "every Thanksgiving day ordained by a governor of Massachusetts was to honor a bloody victory thanking God for the battle won."

One hundred and fifty years later on November 26, 1787, President George Washington issued a proclamation for a day of thanks, but for many years afterward there was no regular national Thanksgiving Day in the United States. Thanksgiving did not become an annual observance until 1863, during the darkest days of the Civil War, when President Lincoln proclaimed it an annual national observance.

If celebrations give voice to the values and ideals by which we are trying to live, perhaps -- in view of the history of the way Thanksgiving has been observed -- it may be easier to first think of how we ought not observe it. 

First, It seems to me that Thanksgiving ought not be a day for thanking God for our affluence while others go hungry.  The notion that it is God who gives affluence to some and poverty to many not only ignores the role that humans have played in arranging patterns of affluence and poverty, but flies in the face of the love and justice.

Second, Thanksgiving ought not to be a time to claim God's special blessing on any nation.  As a persecuted minority religious group in Europe, the Pilgrims knew only too well the problems that occur when the interests of God and nation are identified by a dominant religious group.  It was a lesson they themselves forgot as they became the dominant religious group in New England, and it was the Native Americans who suffered.

Third, Thanksgiving ought not be an occasion to romanticize the cooperation between the Indians and the settlers, unless to recall as well—and in sorrow—the subsequent centuries' genocide of Native Americans.

Fourth, Thanksgiving ought not merely be a day of rest and football before the two largest shopping days of the year, when giving thanks is swept out the back door so we can "shop till we drop."

If we want Thanksgiving to be a day that gives voice to our values and our highest ideals, how might we observe it?  

First, Thanksgiving is a day to remember with gratitude and humility that we alone are not responsible for whatever bounty is in our lives.  Let us not forget to be grateful.

Second, Thanksgiving is a day to acknowledge that part of our bounty has come at the expense of others, including Native Americans, slaves, farm workers, family members and hosts of others we do not even know.  We might even try to consider how illegal immigrants contributed to our Thanksgiving dinner—on the turkey farms, in the processing plants, in the harvesting of the vegetables,…you get the idea—and give thanks. It might be a time to acknowledge, if only to those around our tables, the hypocrisy of much of the talk about illegal immigrants.  

Third, Thanksgiving is a day when we share what we have with others, and include in our celebrations those who might otherwise be alone.

Finally, Thanksgiving could be a day when we anticipate a world like that hoped for in 1621 when Native Americans and Pilgrims sat down at table together, a world where hungry children are fed; the homeless have homes; and those who suffer from discrimination because of race, sex, sexual orientation, religion or age are respected; and where we live peacefully with those who hold different opinions about important matters. 

If this can be what we celebrate, then we will recapture the all-too-short-lived spirit of that Thanksgiving in 1621. Happy Thanksgiving!

- Milo Thornberry

[1] Larsen, Charles M., "The Real Thanksgiving," the letter of Edward Winslow dated 1622, pp. 5-6. (The Center For World Indigenous Studies Project, c/o The Fourth World Documentation Project,| P.O. Box 2574, Olympia, Washington USA 98507-2574)
[2] Ibid.
[3]Akwesasne Notes, Mohawk Nation. Vol.12 - August 1980, p. 3.
[4]Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States, Harper & Row, Publishers, 1980. p. 14.


Tom Finley Brown said...

Milo, Many thanks for this! It is a reminder of our history, as well as offering both positive things we can do and others to avoid. Tom F. Brown

Tom Finley Brown said...

Milo, Many thanks for this! You have given us some positives to reflect on as well as things to avoid in celebrating Thanksgiving this year. Needed words, and I appreciate your shared thoughts . . .

RBW said...

Dear Milo, Hope your trip East was rewarding for all. I enjoy your cartoon about the wall. It makes me wonder how we can build a wall to keep someone out without locking ourselves in. RBW

Milo Thornberry said...

We can't!

Thanks for your comment!