Sunday, November 23, 2014

Mythmaking Thanksgiving

As we contemplate consuming copious quantities of turkey, cranberries, and mashed potatoes, it may be instructive to consider what we really know about the origins of our Thanksgiving holiday celebration.

The First Thanksgiving, 1621 by Jean Ferris (1899)
According to historian James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me, the Pilgrims did not start the Thanksgiving tradition; instead, east coast Indians had celebrated autumnal harvests for hundreds of years. In fact, our modern celebration only dates back to President Lincoln's 1863 proclamation of a national Thanksgiving holiday (during the perilous times of the Civil War), when the Union badly needed a boost of patriotism. The Pilgrims of New England were not even incorporated into the tradition for another 30 years.

There are literally only two brief primary sources that deal with what happened in the Fall of 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The most familiar might be Edward Winslow's Mourt's Relation (modernized spelling below) in which he stated:
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.
What from the traditional holiday celebration is mentioned and what is left out?

Importantly, the above-mentioned quote lacks historical context. Think about it: why exactly were the Indians so willing to sit down with these "invaders"? Toward answering that question, some historians have argued that our yearly celebrations whitewash the permanent colonization of America that might have been impossible without the devastating (but unintentional) plagues that preceded the Pilgrim arrival. This onslaught of disease might have been the most important single occurrence in the history of America. Lastly, feel free to comment on how the depictions featured above in this traditional painting (click to enlarge) may have contributed to the Thanksgiving mythology.

14 comments:

Rose said...

The positioning of the people in Jean Ferris' portrayal of Thanksgiving can be interpreted in a couple different ways. One might say that the Native Americans are being served and, therefore, are of a higher rank than the whites. On the other hand, the whites are looking down on the natives perhaps showing that the Indians are inferior. The Native Americans also look less civilized because of their lack of clothing and use of modern furniture. Was Ferris intentional trying to make the white men and women look superior to the natives?

Rayna K said...

In my last blog post in which I discussed Black Friday and Thanksgiving I came across a very similar dilemma. I tried to think what big event started Thanksgiving and what it symbolized for America. I knew that it was feast on Plymouth celebrated by the Pilgrims, but that was about it. So, I researched online and came to unsettling conclusion: that Thanksgiving is in deed a very loosely historically sound holiday. And this post supports just that. Just from the primary source there is no evidence that the Pilgrims even ate turkey, instead they feasted on deer. In the picture above, there is no evidence of a large bird being served to the Indians. But, more importantly than missing a turkey, it appears as though the Pilgrims are in fact serving the Indians. Perhaps this is Ferris' way of showing that Thanksgiving is a time where people come together regardless of class, gender, or race.

Ana D said...

I think that this is interesting because for the longest time I have believed the myth of Thanksgiving. I remember being in pre-school and dressing up as a pilgrim to learn about how it all "happened". However, it makes me wonder why this myth is so widely believed if that is not what happened. I would agree with Rose that the painting above makes the Native Americans seem inferior, because although they are being served, they are on the ground whereas the whites are sitting at a table. This gives the impression that they are lower in status than the whites.

Camille Baer said...

From my prior knowledge about Thanksgiving, I always thought that the pilgrims and Indians came together and traded goods and had a large, joyous celebration. Now, I understand this is incredibly naive of me, and I'm sure nothing even close to that happened, but over the past hundred years or so Thanksgiving has evolved in a positive way. Unlike Christmas, Thanksgiving is about bringing people together (similar to what Rayna said) and enjoying the company of family and friends while you eat too much food so that the pants have to be unbuttoned. I respect the fact that, although Thanksgiving is most likely a myth, it hasn't been completely soiled by hallmark as a commercial holiday. Call me crazy, but I don't mind celebrating a holiday that has a faulty historic background, because we celebrate Thanksgiving for America, and all the things we've accomplished as a nation. Thanksgiving creates a feeling of connectedness with this country for me, which I feel has been lost for a long time now. (Or maybe i just like thanksgiving cause we get three days of school off.)

Tong W. said...

I think this is a very interesting post and the picture in the post most likely sways the way people think about Thanksgiving. In the picture the Native Indians are being fed but in reality it was the other way around in which the new settlers, the Pilgrims, were being treated to an abundance of meats, drinks, and vegetables. For my explanation of why the Indians were so willing to sit down with the Pilgrims, was probably because they felt sympathetic towards the new settlers. The Indians probably new what the new settlers had to go through and the struggles of adapting to living in a new place.

Isabelle Tashima said...

This was very intersting to me, as it made me think about Thanksgiving in a new way. My past assumptions about Thanksgiving were proven incorrect, as I also believed in the Thanksgiving myth. However, I don't think this is a bad thing, because I believe that the painting made me realize there's more a big-picture theme encompassing Thanksgiving. Although there may not be historical context, the painting proved to me that there's a social and emotional context. In the painting, as many others pointed out, the Indians are actually being portrayed in a different way than the social norm. Instead of being the servers, they're being served. This sends a huge message that Thanksgiving is about acceptance and coming together with others.

Haley Y said...

I liked the way this blog-post really made me think about the true origins of what has become almost something like a "Hallmark holiday." I think the reason why the Indians were so willing to sit down with these "invaders" was because they were afraid. In the primary source it mentions, "...[We Pilgrims] exercised our Arms," but then it is directly followed by, "many of the Indians coming amongst us." It's interesting how they exercise their power (aka guns), to influence the native people. The primary source goes on to say "[The Indians] went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor..." I kind of see this act as almost sacrificial. They're giving the "invaders" food in return for peace. Out of fear of losing their land and their lives from mysterious new "Invaders" the Indians agree to a "Thanksgiving" feast.

Spencer James said...

I think it is also important to consider why the majority of the American population has been mislead (as those commenting before me showed) about the true origins of Thanksgiving. After all, the fallacies about the interactions between the Pilgrims of the Mayflower and Native Americans must have come from somewhere. I wonder if perhaps creating the holiday of Thanksgiving was truly a propaganda strategy. Since Lincoln proclaimed the holiday to be a national holiday during a time of great racial strife (1863), maybe he intended it not just to be a boost of patriotism (as Mr. Bolos explains), but also a symbol of this country's tolerant and accepting origins (also shown in the depiction of White settlers above).

Claire H said...

The way this picture is depicted transcends time and is still today an accurate representation of the impacts of social class in American society today. In some ways, this picture reminds me of the modern-day concept of a "soup kitchen". Members of an upper class (usually white) volunteer their time to cook and serve members of a lower class, who otherwise would go hungry. Like a soup kitchen, in this picture, it appears that the pilgrims (higher class) are serving the Indians food. While the modern-day soup kitchen volunteers and pilgrims have different motives for serving their meals, a picture of whites serving at a soup kitchen would mimic this picture almost exactly.

Calvin Montgomery said...

This post brings up a great point about the miseducation about this holiday. We had been taught previously that there had been this happy coming-coming together of sides who brought food and feasted. As Spencer mentioned above the popularization of this holiday could be just a patriotism boost that has lasted, but also it could have been an attempt to show the U.S as tolerable of the Native Americans.

Joesh said...

This blog post really changed my perception of these, so called, "American holidays", and the true historical context of them. Something very interesting I noticed in the painting is how the Indians are sitting on the ground, and the whites are sitting at a table. Not only are they physically above the pilgrims (white woman leaning down to give the indians food. This portrays the whites as being the creators of the holiday, and the Indians as people who just helped them along the way.

Also why are some words bigger than others?

Joesh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Julie R said...

It's amazing how many people, including me, have been mislead by the Thanksgiving myth. As many people have mentioned, the painting clearly contributes to the Thanksgiving mythology by depicting the pilgrims as the servers, standing above the Indians who seem to only be "guests" at this feast. However, I also think it's important to observe the number of pilgrims in relation to the number of Indians portrayed in the painting. While only about 7 Indians are visible, I notice about 17 pilgrims. No wonder so many people still think that the pilgrims created Thanksgiving. Nevertheless, the feast has always been an important part of Thanksgiving. It's clear that food has remained a very special component of American culture to this day.

Ellie L said...

Whatever the original purpose and historical origins of the holiday, there is no doubt that Thanksgiving has taken on a new meaning to America. Of course, most families will say that they gather together and feast, giving thanks for all their blessings. However, what does the fact that we have also created the infamous Black Friday the day after Thanksgiving?