Thanksgiving Thoughts

Nov 25, 2010 | 5 comments

“Pilgrim” by Jess Acosta, 1989

     The first true (as in visceral) realization I had that my childhood concept of Thanksgiving wasn’t a universally held truth was in November 1959.  I was in England with my husband and  two-and-a-half-year-old son and I had the unreasonable idea that we could shop for the ingredients and do a make-shift Thanksgiving Dinner.  Forget it.
     I remember being rather indignant that I couldn’t find either canned pumpkin or cranberry sauce – two ingredients I considered essential building blocks to my imaginary feast.  I don’t think I would have been as disappointed had we not already been away from home, traveling on the Continent for eleven months.  Finally arriving in England, where I could actually make myself understood, probably gave me the illusion that I was with folks who knew about the Pilgrims, the Mayflower, Plymouth Rock, and Thanksgiving.
     Well, they might have known something about our tradition – maybe as much as we know about Boxing Day or Guy Fawkes Day.  But, whether or not they had knowledge of our holiday, most people we talked with took the attitude that we, along with all Americans, were still ‘upstarts.’  We were often referred to, only partly in jest I thought, as “from the Colonies.”  My dream of a Thanksgiving Feast for that year evaporated in the London fog.
     I think I still hung onto part of the Thanksgiving myth until eight years ago when Nyel and I visited Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts.  I loved it and highly recommend the experience to anyone who plans to visit New England.  But, if you don’t already know that “The First Thanksgiving” story about the Pilgrims and the Indians feasting together is pure fantasy, a visit to Plimoth Plantation will set you straight:
     No, the first English settlers did not call themselves “Pilgrims.”  That term for them was not used until about 1800.  They actually referred to themselves as “Planters.”
     No, the English colonists and the Native People did not celebrate ‘The First Thanksgiving’ together.  The colonists did, however, mark their first harvest “by rejoicing in a special manner” according to early writings.
     There is only one existing picture of a “Pilgrim” – an oil painting of Mayflower passenger Edward Winslow.  In it he is wearing black and white clothing, the height of fashion in England in the mid-1600s which is where and when he had his portrait painted.  It set the tone for the stereotype drab colors worn by the earliest settlers, though that fashion did not become popular for thirty years after the Mayflower arrived.
     Had I visited Plimoth Plantation before I retired from teaching,  would I have continued to tell “The Thanksgiving Story” to young children in the way that I learned it as a child?  Probably yes.  We need warm, fuzzy legends to balance some of the harsh realities of the here and now.  Besides, being thankful for our blessings is the important message.  Never mind the historic details… at least not in this instance.

5 Comments

  1. Stephanie Frieze

    What I like about Thanksgiving is that it can be adapted to whatever Americans bring to the table figuratively and literally and it is ever changing as our population changes. I love the pictures in my head of the pilgrims and native Americans sitting down to be thankful for the harvest, but I also like how Thanksgiving is non-sectarian. While Christmas is largely celebrated by Christians, Thanksgiving is for Americans of every stripe. Tonight there will be dishes from around the world served on tables across the country as families gather to be thankful to be together in America. I hope the whole Plimouth story continues to be told as every family needs mythology and hopefully we ARE a family.

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  2. Stephanie Frieze

    PS That Jess was quite the artist! Did she grow up to be one?

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    • sydney

      I wish I knew the answer to that! Jess was incredibly talented as a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grader — one of the best young artists I have had the privilege of knowing. I last saw her a number of years ago when she was attending college. She said she was still planning to “do something” with her art. I hope she has managed to make that plan a reality.

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  3. Brigid

    SYDNEY, YOU TELL THOSE KIDS THE TRUTH. It is a beautiful truth, the group survived their adventure, and it was difficult and there was a struggle. They gave thanks, among other reasons that they had found a friends. The friends, even though they resented them being there, helped them. It’s socialism at its best. LOVE YOU.
    P.S. We didn’t have cranberries for Thanksgiving and I LOVE them. But we had excellent company, and that’s what counts.

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  4. Suzanne Knutzen

    Scholastic sponsored a virtual field trip to Pilmouth Plantation. So, I linked my computer up to the digital projection screen, and my 3rd graders got to see the settlement, and hear actors talk about life in 1620-21. Our class loved their “field trip.” The only glitch was I forgot to explain what the world “virtual” mean beforehand. When it was all over, one child dejectedly exclaimed, “But I thought we were really going to go there!!” The story is a wonderful one, even with the warm fuzzies gently removed.

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