Thanksgiving: The Pilgrims’ Feast

Thanksgiving: The Pilgrims’ Feast

Op-Ed: End the romance of Thanksgiving, as a great Pequot scholar argued two centuries ago

By: Michael Barone

November 20, 2013

The holiday season is one of the great traditions of the American culture. As we prepare for what promises to be another big shopping day, this time of year, we look back through the past and make room for the “better” holidays—Christmas, Hanukkah, Passover, and all the others. Thanksgiving, however, is the most fraught: the idea of the feast-day dinner with the family, turkey and trimmings, all of it, is a romantic dream: a time to gather with family and friends to celebrate love and give thanks for the life we lead. But here’s the rub: We’re spending Thanksgiving, a solemn day of fasting and humility, on the day before what’s traditionally one of the biggest holidays in the country: the day after Christmas.

We are the privileged few: a nation of devout Christians who hold a tradition as sacred as celebrating the birth of Christ. Yet we are going to a holiday meal, to celebrate a meal that was held just three-quarters of a millennium ago. How does this happen? How can we invite our ancestors, who are the true descendants of the Pilgrims, to dinner as if it were a modern feast, as though these people couldn’t imagine that the food we serve today would be as alien to their taste and palate as it is to ours?

In 1693, Thanksgiving was a grand feast in a colonial village, and it included turkey, stuffing with bread, and vegetables, and a feast that was meant to honor the generosity of the Pilgrims—for they had come to the New World seeking religious freedom. But the Pilgrims were not alone: they were surrounded by Native peoples, and on Thanksgiving, Native Americans had their own feast—a time to give thanks for their survival in the face of persecution and a bloody genocide. The event took place in Plymouth, Massachusetts. It was a time when the Puritans were still in the process of establishing their new settlements, and the Pilgrims invited the natives to a Thanksgiving feast in recognition of the spiritual power the natives had in the face of the encroachment by these new settlers. In fact, for them it was an unprecedented moment of celebration, with the Pilgrims taking the spiritual power of the Native Americans

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