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Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because I personally have so very much to be thankful for and because it is the quintessentially American holiday. It’s been 399 years since the British settlers at Plymouth Colony celebrated their first harvest with the Native Americans who helped them survive their first year in the New World.
Well, truth be told, only half of them survived. The year between the Mayflower’s off-course landing on Cape Cod in November 1620 and the legendary feast in November 1621 was almost too horrific to contemplate. Most of the deaths from malnutrition and disease happened even before the settlers — who were not routinely referred to as Pilgrims for another 200 years — had permanently disembarked from the ship to occupy rudimentary shelters on shore in March.
This is an Opinion
And yet they gave thanks, both upon leaving the Mayflower and in the fall, after a successful harvest some 500 miles farther north than they had expected.
As journalist John Hanc noted in a 2016 article for The Smithsonian Magazine, almost everything we know about what we recognize as the first Thanksgiving is based on a letter written a few days later by one of the settlers, Edward Winslow, whose name was unfamiliar to me. The letter, addressed to an unidentified “Loving, and old Friend” back in England, was published in London the following year as a “true Declaration of the worth of that Plantation” with encouragement and advice for prospective settlers “whose company we much desire.” Here’s the relevant part:
“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 fruits 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 amongst 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.”
Fowl, deer, recreation — sounds about right.
In his letter/sales pitch, Winslow made no direct mention of the abysmal survival rate of the Mayflower’s passengers and crew, although he did allow that “we have not been idle, considering the smallness of our number all this summer.” And he admired the health of a new “supply of men” who had arrived shortly before the feast. It occurs to me that downplaying risks for the sake of a struggling economy is neither a new phenomenon nor distant history.
Thanksgiving feasts and holidays were celebrated formally and informally in the colonies and states for the next two centuries, including by the New Hampshire family of a pesky woman editor named Sarah Josepha Hale. (You undoubtedly know one of her early works, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”) As Barbara Maranzani recounted in an article for the History Channel’s website, history.com, Hale became editor of a popular magazine called Godey’s Lady Book in 1837 and used her influence to lobby state and federal officials to create a national Thanksgiving holiday on the last Thursday in November. “She believed that such a unifying measure could help ease growing tensions and divisions between the northern and southern parts of the country,” Maranzani wrote.
More than 30 states and territories had declared official Thanksgiving holidays by 1854. But it was not until 1863, in the depths of the Civil War, that a national holiday was declared by President Abraham Lincoln. Once again, tragedy was joined with gratitude.
And so it is as Thanksgiving 2020 approaches. This has been a miserable, tragic year, with 250,000 Americans dead from COVID-19 and more suffering and death coming every day until one or more vaccines can be proven effective, approved, manufactured, distributed and administered. It’s also a year in which our tense and divided country needs a unifying measure more than at any time in my increasingly long life.
So let another pesky woman editor encourage you to embrace the spirit of Thanksgiving this year as never before, even as we must limit the traditional togetherness — a small sacrifice by historic standards. By this time next year, perhaps we will all be in a healthier place.