Keeping Thanksgiving Real

Two years before the 1619 Project — even — the New York Times was demythologizing America’s Protestant history.

The Mayflower did bring the Pilgrims to North America from Plymouth, England, in 1620, and they disembarked at what is now Plymouth, Mass., where they set up a colony. In 1621, they celebrated a successful harvest with a three-day gathering that was attended by members of the Wampanoag tribe. It’s from this that we derive Thanksgiving as we know it.

But it wasn’t until the 1830s that this event was called the first Thanksgiving by New Englanders who looked back and thought it resembled their version of the holiday, said Kate Sheehan, a spokeswoman for Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth.

The holiday wasn’t made official until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln declared it as a kind of thank you for the Civil War victories in Vicksburg, Miss., and Gettysburg, Pa.

Beyond that, claiming it was the “first Thanksgiving” isn’t quite right either as both Native American and European societies had been holding festivals to celebrate successful harvests for centuries, Mr. Loewen said.

If you think about giving thanks for religious freedom (as if, during the pandemic) over your white meat and mashed potatoes, think again.

The Pilgrims had religious freedom in Holland, where they first arrived in the early 17th century. Like those who settled Jamestown, Va., in 1607, the Pilgrims came to North America to make money, Mr. Loewen said.

“They were also coming here in order to establish a religious theocracy, which they did,” he said. “That’s not exactly the same as coming here for religious freedom. It’s kind of coming here against religious freedom.”

And if you wind up unwittingly at a casino today, you have something in common with those seventeenth-century theocrats.

Possibly the most common misconception is that the Pilgrims extended an invitation to the Native Americans for helping them reap the harvest. The truth of how they all ended up feasting together is unknown.

But don’t feel too badly about the day that we are sort of celebrating in a way that saves lives. The Times has plenty of recipes to satisfy even the most sinful glutton. The Harts will be serving Turkey Breast Roulade with Garlic and Rosemary.

Turkey Breast Roulade With Garlic and Rosemary

I feel white Protestant guilt floating away.

I'm Thankful for Tracy McKenzie

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. A four-day weekend, a big meal, no gifts, a day to sleep off excessive consumption, and a meal that has lots of carbs. What’s not to like (and what wine do you pair with carbs)? But of course, the pressure is on to be thankful in a special way, as if I’m ungrateful or not sufficiently thankful the rest of the year. Not to go all New Calvinist, but I am in the habit of praying prayers of gratitude at least five times a day — more on Sunday.

So can’t we just enjoy this day without an extra dollop of piety? In these religiously charged times, no. In fact, Thanksgiving becomes a way to reinforce the meme of religious liberty and Christians creation of it:

More than any other group globally, Christians are under threat and restriction by many tyrannical regimes and violent ideologies. Our prayers this Thanksgiving must remember them.

The Pilgrim escape to New England emblematizes the centuries-long quest for liberty to worship God without coercion, a liberty that hundreds of millions from different faiths in our world do not have.

The feast celebrated by Pilgrims and Indians also models a transcultural and transracial harmony possible by divine grace and good will. May we always honor their persevering faith and continue today the quest for liberty under God for all people.

That’s why Tracy McKenzie’s reconstruction of the actual history of the Pilgrims is so valuable. He cuts through the sanctity and civil religion and shows how accidental history is:

When the Pilgrims spoke of holidays, they used the word literally. A holiday was a “holy day,” a day specially set apart for worship and communion with God. Their reading of the scripture convinced them that God had only established one regular holy day under the new covenant, and that was the Lord’s Day each Sunday. Beyond that, they did believe that the scripture allowed the consecration of occasional Days of Fasting and Humiliation to beseech the Lord for deliverance from a particular trial, as well as occasional Days of Thanksgiving to praise the Lord for his extraordinary provision. Both were comparatively solemn observances, characterized by lengthy religious services full of prayer, praise, instruction, and exhortation.

From the Pilgrims’ perspective, their first formal celebration of a Day of Thanksgiving in Plymouth came nearly two years later, in July 1623. We’re comparatively unfamiliar with it because, frankly, we get bored with the Pilgrims once they’ve carved the first turkey. We condense their story to three key events—the Mayflower Compact, the Landing at Plymouth Rock, and the First Thanksgiving—and quickly lose interest thereafter. In reality, the Pilgrims’ struggle for survival continued at least another two years.

This was partly due to the criminal mismanagement of the London financiers who bankrolled the colony. Only weeks after their 1621 harvest celebration, the Pilgrims were surprised by the arrival of the ship Fortune. The thirty-five new settlers on board would nearly double their depleted ranks. Unfortunately, they arrived with few clothes, no bedding or pots or pans, and “not so much as biscuit cake or any other victuals,” as William Bradford bitterly recalled. Indeed, the London merchants had not even provisioned the ship’s crew with sufficient food for the trip home.

The result was that, rather than having “good plenty” for the winter, the Pilgrims, who had to provide food for the Fortune’s return voyage and feed an additional thirty-five mouths throughout the winter, once again faced the prospect of starvation. Fearing that the newcomers would “bring famine upon us,” the governor immediately reduced the weekly food allowance by half. In the following months hunger “pinch[ed] them sore.” By May they were almost completely out of food. It was no longer the season for waterfowl, and if not for the shellfish in the bay, and the little grain they were able to purchase from passing fishing boats, they very well might have starved.

The harvest of 1622 provided a temporary reprieve from hunger, but it fell far short of their needs for the coming year, and by the spring of 1623 the Pilgrims’ situation was again dire. As Bradford remembered their trial, it was typical for the colonists to go to bed at night not knowing where the next day’s nourishment would come from. For two to three months they had no bread or beer at all and “God fed them” almost wholly “out of the sea.”

Adding to their plight, the heavens closed up around the third week in May, and for nearly two months it rained hardly at all. The ground became parched, the corn began to wither, and hopes for the future began dying as well. When another boatload of settlers arrived that July, they were “much daunted and dismayed” by their first sight of the Plymouth colonists, many of whom were “ragged in apparel and some little better than half naked.” The Pilgrims, for their part, could offer the newcomers nothing more than a piece of fish and a cup of water.

In the depths of this trial the Pilgrims were sure of this much: it was God who had sent this great drought; it was the Lord who was frustrating their “great hopes of a large crop.” This was not the caprice of “nature,” but the handiwork of the Creator who worked “all things according to the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11). Fearing that He had done this thing for their chastisement, the community agreed to set apart “a solemn day of humiliation, to seek the Lord by humble and fervent prayer, in this great distress.”

As Edward Winslow explained, their hope was that God “would be moved hereby in mercy to look down upon us, and grant the request of our dejected souls. . . . But oh the mercy of our God!” Winslow exulted, “who was as ready to hear, as we to ask.” The colonists awoke on the appointed day to a cloudless sky, but by the end of the prayer service—which lasted eight to nine hours—it had become overcast, and by morning it had begun to rain, as it would continue to do for the next fourteen days. Bradford marveled at the “sweet and gentle showers . . . which did so apparently revive and quicken the decayed corn.” Winslow added, “It was hard to say whether our withered corn or drooping affections were most quickened or revived.”

Overwhelmed by God’s gracious intervention, the Pilgrims immediately called for another providential holiday. “We thought it would be great ingratitude,” Winslow explained, if we should “content ourselves with private thanksgiving for that which by private prayer could not be obtained. And therefore another solemn day was set apart and appointed for that end; wherein we returned glory, honor, and praise, with all thankfulness, to our good God.” This occasion, likely held at the end of July, 1623, perfectly matches the Pilgrims’ definition of a thanksgiving holy day. It was a “solemn” observance, as Winslow noted, called to acknowledge a very specific, extraordinary blessing from the Lord. In sum, it was what the Pilgrims themselves would have viewed as their “First Thanksgiving” in America, and we have all but forgotten it.

The Pilgrims had their circumstances. We have ours. Cut me another piece of pie.

Gizzards, Pigskins, and Carbs

I am not sure why you might feel the need to turn Thanksgiving into another testimonial for Holy Mother Church. Can’t Protestants have anything to themselves? The converts say no.

Taylor Marshall claims:

The first American Thanksgiving was actually celebrated on September 8 (feast of the birth of the Blessed Virgin) in 1565 in St. Augustine, Florida. The Native Americans and Spanish settlers held a feast and the Holy Mass was offered. This was 56 years before the Puritan pilgrims of Massachusetts. Don Pedro Menendez came ashore amid the sounding of trumpets, artillery salutes and the firing of cannons to claim the land for King Philip II and Spain. The ship chaplain Fr. Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales chanted the Te Deum and presented a crucifix that Menendez ceremoniously kissed. Then the 500 soldiers, 200 sailors and 100 families and artisans, along with the Timucuan Indians celebrated the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in gratitude to God.

Christine Niles acknowledges Thanksgiving’s associations with English Protestants but also points out how marginal those Protestants were:

Queen Elizabeth had little patience for Catholics, but even less for Calvinists, who complained the Church of England remained too papist. In their desire to complete the Reformation and “purify” religion of popish trumperies, the Puritans broke from the Anglican Church, rejected the Book of Common Prayer, and preferred the anti-royalist Geneva Bible to the King James version. They instituted an independent congregationalist ideal that upheld the notion of the common priesthood of all believers, and thus granted an equal say among congregants in the election of the minister (some claim the roots of American democracy lie here). All of this naturally brought down on them the wrath of the Crown, and persecution commenced. A number of Puritans fled England and sought refuge in Holland, where they lived for a dozen years, before deciding to leave for the New World. After meeting another group of Puritans in Southampton, all boarded the Mayflower on September 16, 1620. Sixty-five days later, they sighted Cape Cod. The communal meal we know of as “Thanksgiving” took place in 1621 with about ninety Native Americans, and lasted three days.

And then Ray Cavanaugh argues that Squanto, a convert to Roman Catholicism, made the first Thanksgiving possible:

He bequeathed his possessions to his English friends, all of them Protestant Puritans who, despite their own need for religious freedom, were not especially tolerant of Catholicism. One wonders if these Puritans even knew of their benefactor’s Catholic conversion.

But the guy who wrote the book on the first Thanksgiving, Robert Tracy McKenzie, reminds readers that:

Overwhelmed by God’s gracious intervention, the Pilgrims immediately called for another providential holiday. “We thought it would be great ingratitude,” Winslow explained, if we should “content ourselves with private thanksgiving for that which by private prayer could not be obtained. And therefore another solemn day was set apart and appointed for that end; wherein we returned glory, honor, and praise, with all thankfulness, to our good God.” This occasion, likely held at the end of July, 1623, perfectly matches the Pilgrims’ definition of a thanksgiving holy day. It was a “solemn” observance, as Winslow noted, called to acknowledge a very specific, extraordinary blessing from the Lord. In sum, it was what the Pilgrims themselves would have viewed as their “First Thanksgiving” in America, and we have all but forgotten it.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving today, perhaps we might remember both of these occasions. The Pilgrims’ harvest celebration of 1621 is an important reminder to see God’s gracious hand in the bounty of nature. But the Pilgrims’ holiday of 1623—what they would have called “The First Thanksgiving”—more forthrightly challenges us to look for God’s ongoing, supernatural intervention in our lives.

None of these accounts can dissuade me from my ambivalence about this holiday at this point in this nation’s history. On the one hand, it is the best holiday of the year from the perspective of food, drink, and leisure. On the other hand, the covenant theology that informs a national day of thanksgiving (or fasting) does not fit the conviction that no nation occupies the status that Mosaic Israel did (not to mention fitting a society inhabited by Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and agnostics). Over at Front Porch Republic I develop this ambivalence.