When Americans on Thanksgiving Day have their meal—with only members of their household and the ones that are fully vaccinated because of the deadly pandemic and it’s many variants—to give thanks for all the blessings that they have received individually and as a nation, they probably will do so without thinking too much about the real meaning of the holiday, seeing the latter more as an opportunity to once again renew family bonds and friendships.
But too often Americans celebrate their holidays ritualistically and even mechanically, as if simply going through some pro forma exercise. I would beg to differ with this unfortunate attitude as we observe the 22nd Thanksgiving of the New Millennium.
The religious non-conformists and separatists who established Jamestown in 1607, Plymouth in 1620 and Massachusetts Bay in 1628 had much to be thankful for, and our own holiday descends from the very first Thanksgiving in 1621 observed by the Plymouth colonists.
The Pilgrims, as we have come to call them, were essentially refugees from England and Northern Europe fleeing the persecution of the Church of England and the Catholic Church. They were Calvinists who believed in original sin, predestination and salvation through grace. Good works were obligatory and the Sabbath was strictly enforced. There existed a covenant between Man and God and between Man and Government, which fulfilled the Covenant.
Puritanism was a religious movement which began during the reign of Elizabeth I that sought to “purify” the Anglican church of such evils as vestments and images and which eventually opposed the authority of the bishops and then of the monarchy. The Protestant ethic and probably the spirit of capitalism can be traced back to these early pioneers and settlers of the New World.
It is of course universally acknowledged that the Pilgrims could not have survived the harsh winters of New England without the aid of the indigenous peoples. On December 10, 1607 Captain John Smith of the London Company left Jamestown to ask for food from the Native Americans for the starving colonists, but instead two of his fellows were slain and he was saved from a similar fate by Pocahontas, the daughter of Chief Powhatan. The following year, they taught Captain Smith how to grow corn and in the Spring he planted 40 acres of corn which helped the colonists to survive.
John Rolfe then succeeded in planting and harvesting a native crop called tobacco, which became the main export crop and moneymaker for the English Colonies for years to come. The survival of the Virginia Colony (Jamestown, Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, etc.) was thus ensured. The Plymouth Colony was established when the Mayflower reached Cape Cod on Nov. 9, 1620, but before disembarking the 41 men aboard signed the Mayflower Compact on Nov. 11, which in essence was an agreement to abide by Majority Rule as well as an attempt to control dissidents members of the group. The origins of American democracy and self-government were thus planted well before the American Revolution of 1776.
On December 21, 1620 the colonists begin to go ashore and by March 21, 1621 the final group of colonists had left the Mayflower. The colonists in Jamestown, Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay endured very harsh winters and suffered tremendous casualties from disease, starvation and attacks, but Native Americans instructed the colonists how to grow certain crops enabling them to survive. Their diet was supplemented by the rich bounty of the Atlantic Ocean in the form of fish, lobster, etc. The colonies were continually fed new reinforcements from the Old World and in the years to follow there is a huge wave of Puritan migration into New England that more than compensates for the diseases and the other deprivations that the colonists suffered at the beginning of their colonizing effort.
The Pilgrims were not the first immigrants to the New World, as the indigenous people of the Americas preceded them by at least 30,000 to 50,000 years, and possibly more. They too were in search of a better life and may have been also persecuted and hounded by other tribes of hunters and gatherers. The European discovers and conquistadors, beginning with the Vikings in the Tenth Century and then with the Spaniards and Portuguese of the late Fifteenth Century and early Sixteenth Century inaugurated a new era of migration in world history that has lasted to the present day. The Pilgrims were nothing more than immigrants themselves, a fact which seems to have been lost as a result of their romanticizing and glorification, as great as their achievement obviously was.
Yet this latter achievement could not have been possible, or at least it was ameliorated, by the previous immigrants to the New World, the Native Americans, who paved the way for succeeding generations of immigrants so many thousands of years ago. So as we sit down to break bread and dig into our turkey, mashed potatoes, dressing and cranberry sauce, let us not forget, and let us all be thankful for the contribution that the original settlers of the Americas made, for as the original Pilgrims in 1621 thanked the Almighty for their bounty, and feasted alongside their Native American neighbors in friendship and community, we should do the same and thereby celebrate our common humanity and brotherhood.
The irony when we celebrate Thanksgiving is that we forget that America was founded and strengthened and enriched by generations of immigrants seeking a better life and escaping persecution and hence is born the misconceived idea of a WASP America, when nothing could be further from the truth. When we all sit down at the dinner table on Thanksgiving Day, that is something worth remembering even as COVID-19 continues to preying on us.