Flavin's Corner

By R. D. Flavin

     This Thursday we celebrate the 135th Thanksgiving holiday, the annual
commemoration introduced under Abe Lincoln in 1863 to honor a series
of shared dinners between the Pilgrims and Native Americans.  Most of us
are taught from an early age that the "first" Thanksgiving was held in 1621
to celebrate a successful harvest after the passing of a difficult year, in
which many Mayflower colonists died, and in a spirit of Christian
fellowship, the Pilgrims invited the local Wampanoag to join them.  It's a
quaint story and perhaps there are elements of truth involved, but it's not
history.  Today the Wampanoag, and many other Native Americans,
unfortunately regard "Thanksgiving" with misgiving, and no one can blame
them.  Those were sad and terrible times...

     We know very little about the Mayflower colonists who established
Plymouth Plantation and what we have gleaned from journals, letters, and
other relevant documents, usually hasn't squared with popular
reconstructions.  In fact, only one genuine image of a Plymouth Pilgrim
survives, and that fortuitous event is owed to the rise of Cromwell, the
English Civil War, and the return from Plymouth to England of Edward
Winslow, who later died on a Jamaican cruise in Lord Protector
Cromwell's service.  Except for the well-to-do Winslow (records show he
traveled aboard the Mayflower with two "man-servants"), who sat for a
1651 portrait, we don't know if the Pilgrims were handsome or ugly, tall
or short, laughed a little or laughed a lot.

     Many of the popular reconstructions erroneously depict the Pilgrims as
dressed in black and white, with large buckles affixed to hats, pants, and
shoes.  Such reconstructions are the result of describing the post-1629
influx of Puritans, as well as the later Quakers and Anabaptists.  While
some Puritans were present on the Mayflower (as evidenced by the
Cromwellian "roundhead" sympathies of the above-mentioned Winslow),
the bulk of the Plymouth colonists consisted of "Saints," or congregational
Christians, also known as "Separatists" after their wish to be separated
from the Church of England, and "Strangers," the adventuresome colonists
contracted to help settle a fishing station in the New World by the English
company who financed the Mayflower.  Records from the Mayflower
indicate brightly colored articles of clothing and an ample supply of
alcohol.  And, as far as the large buckles, they were not uncommon in
Europe during the time of the Mayflower, but didn't become inexpensive
and readily available until a few decades later.

     The romantic image of the Pilgrims as a group of humble Christians
fleeing the Church of England is naive and historically dishonest.  As
"Separatists," the Pilgrims encouraged allegiance to King James in
temporal matters, but not when it came to religion.  America continues to
sing the praises of the Mayflower Compact, the congregational agreement
which bound the "Saints" and the "Strangers" into a community, and
seems to be regarded as a document with expressed democratic aims.  The
Mayflower Compact is sworn in the name of King James and was written
to further clarify the means of the contracted to establish a commercial
fishing station in the New World.  As often happens, power and money
reveal themselves to be the prime instigators of history.

     A little more than a hundred years before the Mayflower set sail for the
New World, Martin Luther began the Reformation with the nailing of a
wish-list on a church door.  As the Renaissance was in full bloom, the old
feudal system was dying rapidly, the ruling Catholic Church was staffed by
some of the most corrupt individuals ever to have posed as devout, and
with the technological achievement of the printing press, many Europeans
began to follow the hypocritical and megalomaniacal ravings of Luther and
Calvin.  After centuries of watching kings and the Church become fat with
power and money, the Protestants decided they wanted their share.
Children often follow the ways of their parents.

     Organized religion usually involves intellectual vanity and the often
fatal assertion of factual truth.  Armed with new, printed copies of The
Bible, Protestant leaders began to act like the "Great Oz," and declare that
they knew it all, knew what was best, and preached about what was
wrong.  Religion is such a deadly farce...

     The Pilgrims are regarded as humble Christians, and though some of
their number may not have thought matters through (they did, after all,
forget to bring equipment and nets for the fishing station), the vast
majority of both the "Saints" and the "Strangers" knew full well that they
were invading the New World.  The strategy was apparently one which
sent a small party to establish a foothold (the Mayflower), followed a year
later by the arrival of supplies and more colonists.  The backing English
knew they didn't have the resources, like the Spanish, to send conquering
armies, so they got sneaky and began slow and non-threatening.  It was
still an invasion, albeit gradual, and sad and terrible nonetheless...

     Plymouth tradition holds that the Pilgrims invited their "friends," the
Wampanoag, to the "first" Thanksgiving, but in light of our better
understanding of certain Native festivals, this now seems to be the reverse
of what probably happened.  The Wampanoag, and other related
Algonkin, celebrated six different festivals of 'thanksgiving' throughout the
year, of which the fifth, or harvest festival, seems the likeliest candidate for
an invitation to be extended to the Pilgrims.  Neutral ground was chosen
for the festival, the Wampanoag brought the majority of the food, though
in subsequent years it seems likely the Pilgrims initiated the 'Thanksgiving'
festival and assumed responsibility for providing the food.  The invasion
took many years.

     From Sinai, where the Hebrews separated from the rest of the world by
declaring themselves to be "God's Chosen People," to the founding of
Christianity and the social devastation brought about by the theological
hubris of the Catholic Church, to the Protestant Reformation and the
greedy, personal empowerment goals of everyone who could quote
"scripture," to the subsequent invasion by the Mayflower colonists, to the
profitable crops of tobacco, to "taxation without representation," to
declared genocide directed against Native populations, down through
today and the global addiction to tobacco and the irony that the most
popular American brands of cigarettes are produced with tobacco grown
in food-starved Africa, ...I have to pause and wonder what it is that
Americans are giving thanks for.  Because Protestant Christians won?  I
have serious problems with associating any valid concept of God with all
of this--it's about power and money, which is probably what most
Americans are actually giving thanks for.

     It's really not surprising that the Wampanoag march in Plymouth every
Thanksgiving Day.  With "friends" like the Pilgrims...  Well, everyone
knows the rest...

with misgiving about Thanksgiving,

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