Fantasyland Part 2 The myth of Thanksgiving

There is probably nothing accurate about this picture.

Happy Sunday everyone! Before we begin, I want to give a big thanks to everyone who responded to my last post and a big hello to my new followers. You all made me feel a bit better knowing I am not alone in my worries about our current situation.

To my fellow Americans, I hope you had a pleasant holiday weekend. Did you enjoy your Thanksgiving feast? I made plans to stay home and enjoy one of the last warm days of the season by doing yard work. I can’t remember a 70-degree (21 celsius) day in November since moving from California many moons ago. But I changed plans and headed to a good friend’s house for dinner. After all, isn’t that what Thanksgiving is all about? Spending time with those for whom you are grateful? Kinda like how the Pilgrims were grateful for the helpful Wampanoag tribe as they struggled to make ends meet in their new environment. At least this is the myth we teach our children.

The story we tell ourselves concerning the relationship between the Pilgrims and the Indians is the corner stone to the foundation of the making of America myth. Even though the Pilgrims were not Americans, and not in the least bit interested in starting a new country, the whitewashed story we tell ourselves about them bleeds into the myth of how our country was started. It is one of the first things we teach small school children about America; how early settlers tried to make peace with hostile Indians. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.

The fact is historians do not know much about the first Thanksgiving other than a few lines in a letter from Edward Winslow dated Dec. 11, 1621:

..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.  

Historians cannot be sure if the local tribe was invited to the harvest feast or if they just came around after hearing gunfire. One thing we can be certain is that the feast was not something special, nor was it as we are taught, the Pilgrim’s way of thanking the local Wampanoag tribe for teaching them how to plant and harvest in this new world If it were, Winslow would have made much ado about the feast and would have padded himself on the back for thanking the Indians for their assistance.

Speaking of new world the other persistent myth, and part of our corner stone, is the idea that the Pilgrims (who by the way called themselves “Separatists” not Pilgrims) left England for North America to peacefully practice their religion. In actuality the Separatists left England and first went to Holland, eventually settling in the city of Leiden. Winslow found that Holland afforded them “peace and liberty”. If the Separatists were only looking for religious freedom they would have stayed. But secular needs were wanting in Holland; they found it hard to make a living and harder still to identify as English, so they made out for the New World hoping for a “better and easier life”.

Unfortunately for the indigenous people the Separatists eventually found life better, though not easier. It is true that the local tribes educated them about what to plant and how to plant it, but as the first wave of Separatists thrived others followed and the fragile peace between the groups grew strained. Which leads us to the next recorded “thanksgiving”.

In 1637, in retaliation for the murder of a man the settlers believed the Wampanoags killed, they burned a nearby village, killing as many as 500 men, women, and children. Following the massacre, William Bradford, then Governor of Plymouth, wrote: …

From that day forth shall be a day of celebration and thanks giving for subduing the Pequots and for “the next 100 years, every Thanksgiving Day ordained by a Governor was in honor of the bloody victory, thanking God that the battle had been won.

So to summarize: America celebrates a holiday tradition that was decreed to be a day of thanks by a group of British settlers in honor of a bloody victory over a group of people that included burning to death women and children.

It became an official national holiday in 1863, by President Abraham Lincoln who issued the proclamation of thanksgiving following a request from writer Sarah Josepha Hale, who asked that the day “become, permanently, an American custom and institution.” One has to wonder which part of the custom she wished to institute.

Our American tradition of taking a day to give thanks for what we have is fine. I think we can all agree that it is a good idea to at least once a year, gather friends and family around and show love with gifts food. But isn’t it time we stopped believing in the myth of Thanksgiving? We don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as the saying goes. We could just as easily keep the spirit of the holiday as it has evolved to mean without having to keep the myth of the first thanksgiving. If we have any hope of leaving the world of fantasyland, we must stop clinging to fantasy.

The truth is:

The Separatists wanted to be separate from the Protestant religion, not English identity.

The Separatists’ secular needs outweighed their religious needs so they left Holland for the New World.

As new settlers arrived they demanded more and more land for themselves (and you though immigration is a problem now? Imagine being indigenous back then) without a thought to the people already living on it.

In a span of a few short years the settlers went from trading with the Indians to thinking nothing of wiping out whole villages and tribes & giving “thanks” to God for allowing them their victories.

Our nation is steep in myths about who we are and were we came from. I would argue that the very reason we find ourselves living in fantasyland now is precisely because we have an abundance of stories like these. America was built on fantasy. From the stories we tell about our founding fathers to stories we now share on Facebook. It is hard for us to tell fact from fiction because so much of what we believe is based on fantasy. Let’s change that one story at a time.

Next up, the “War on Christmas, or how Fox news gets you spend more money”.

Works cited

Mayflower Primary Sources A Relation or Journal of the Proceedings of the English Plantation Settled at Plymouth Edward Winslow



Author: sarij

I'm a writer, lifelong bibliophile ,and researcher. I hold a Bachelors in Humanities & History and a Master's in Humanities. When I'm not reading or talking about Shakespeare or history, you can usually find me in the garden discussing science or politics with my cat.

2 thoughts on “Fantasyland Part 2 The myth of Thanksgiving”

  1. I don’t think the line is quite as direct as 1621-1637-1863. (And, yes, I know you’re simplifying. And I’m complexifying. Historians do both, so you’re in good company!) Colonial and antebellum governors in Massachusetts (and presumably elsewhere) often issued proclamations of days of prayer or thanksgiving. What we did with “Thanksgiving” is take an event originally scheduled as appropriate and turned it into the specific commemoration of a misremembered historical event, that of 1621.

    Speaking of misremembering, our dessert this Thanksgiving was “Indian pudding,” a dessert never made by American Indians.

    And on a related topic, after tacking her “SPQR” last year, I’ve been reading Mary Beard’s book on “The Roman Triumph” these last few days. As with Thanksgiving, it was a ceremony whose origins were misremembered and often fictionalized by later Romans, to say nothing of how it was re-imagined by later people. N.B.: we are not the only people to construct mythologies about our past (including use of Latin-derived abbreviations such as “N.B.”!).

    Liked by 1 person

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