On 27 November millions of Americans will sit down to Thanksgiving dinner. The spread is so famous, even non-Americans (like me) know what's on the table. When Norman Rockwell, that great fabulist of US life, depicted "Freedom from Want" in a painting of 1943, what better image could there be than a happy family enjoying the feast with a mixture of excitement and reverence. Rockwell's composition is dominated by a vast turkey, and we know that beyond the frame a pumpkin pie is waiting. It's a serious business. Some 46 million birds will be eaten this year, and US cranberry production -- for the essential condiment -- exceeds 700 million pounds annually. Americans make great efforts to join Rockwell's scene of togetherness: in 2005 37 million of them traveled over fifty miles to be with their families for the holiday, 4 million of them by air.
Behind every Thanksgiving, like Christmas or a summer vacation, hovers a nostalgic archetype, some dream of perfection rooted in the past. And yet as Arthur Koestler noted, "Man cannot inherit the past; he has to re-create it". Children in the US take Koestler's point literally, in pageants that restage the first Thanksgiving from 1621. Walmart's Pilgrim and Native American costumes make for instant caricatures. The boy's suit is black, the shoes buckled, and his white collar so large there would not have been enough room on the Mayflower had everyone worn one. This instant recognition factor is one reason we like the Pilgrim Fathers. My favorite cartoon has them just departing England's shores, and a little voice asking: "Are we there yet?"
The comedian Eddie Izzard made another good joke about the Pilgrims: "They set off from Plymouth and landed in Plymouth. How lucky is that?" The place where they pitched up, somewhat by chance, was actually called Patuxet, although at first no one told them this. A third and final joke, this time from the latest edition of Prospect magazine: Indians facing Pilgrims on the beach ask: "Will you be staying long?" But the English were alone, the Patuxet people having been wiped out by European diseases against which they had no immunity. William Bradford described their scattered bones as "a very sad spectacle to behold". However, for him at least it wasn't that sad: evidently God had cleared the ground to make a Promised Land for the new Israelites. And so Patuxet was renamed Plymouth, an act both comforting and assertive, and Bradford et al got on with building their New World from scratch.
The Pilgrims may not be lovable, but there is no doubting the extraordinary challenges or the courage with which they faced them. Say what you like about their Christian fundamentalism, it proved the most powerful antidote to human despair. They arrived at New Plymouth in December 1620, and had to start clearing and building at once. By March 1621, more than half of the Mayflower's 102 cold, hungry and sick passengers were dead. Had it not been for the intervention of Wampanoag Indians, who supplied the colonists with food and taught them how to plant, the enterprise would have failed. That year they celebrated with a feast, at which their Indian hosts became their guests. This is what we remember as the first Thanksgiving.
The event has been seared into the American consciousness, not least by some famous yet fanciful nineteenth-century paintings. So what really happened? All the surviving settlers must have been present, and perhaps ninety Native Americans. Thanksgiving ceremonies were commonplace in old England, and a key part of the seventeenth-century Protestant calendar. The Plymouth feast, though, was not termed a thanksgiving, and was more of harvest festival. As such, it's more likely to have taken place in late September, around Michaelmas, than November. And what did they eat? William Bradford did mention turkeys, but archaeologists have found but a single bone. It seems more certain that they ate venison, the Indians having contributed five deer. There would have been corn and fish, too. The English felt, and were right to feel, that everything, more or less, was going to be all right. 'Although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us', Edward Winslow told countrymen at home, 'yet by the goodness of God we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty'. Here we catch a distant echo of Franklin D. Roosevelt's idea of "freedom from want," voiced in 1941 and immortalized by Norman Rockwell.
Historians are spoilsports -- Washington's cherry tree intact, Viking helmets hornless, King Alfred's cakes done to a turn -- and Thanksgiving is a tempting target. The Pilgrims did not dress in black -- sorry, kids -- many were actually ungodly "strangers," and the tradition they supposedly began did not become an annual observance in Massachusetts until 1680. They were not even commonly known as "the Pilgrims" until 1800, and the soubriquet 'Pilgrim Fathers' was a coinage of the 1820s. Thanksgiving Day was first marked in 1789, but it was Abraham Lincoln who made it a national holiday in 1863, and Roosevelt who fixed the date as the fourth Thursday in November.
So the Plymouth colonists were not who we might think, and their link to modern Thanksgiving tenuous. Does it matter? The novelist Somerset Maugham called fact "a poor story-teller," which is why we don't let it ruin good stories, still less cherished myths. The truth about the Pilgrims is that they weren't very nice: absolutely remarkable, true, but intolerant, sanctimonious, and, when it suited them, vicious and ruthless. And yet a sanitized version of their story helps millions of Americans (of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds) focus on the importance of getting together once a year, and appreciating one another over some good food. At the same time, spare a thought for the descendants of the Wampanoags, who in previous years have gathered on Cole's Hill at New Plymouth. They call Thanksgiving Day "the Day of Mourning".
Malcolm Gaskill is the author of Between Two Worlds: How the English Became Americans.
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