Every year, my aunt would make a pumpkin-pecan pie, with pecans in concentric circles covering the entire top of the pie. Every year, someone would grab the center pecan (it would always be a different family member). Ever year, my aunt pretended to be angry when the pie made it to the table.
My parents’ home in Springfield, Mass., was the gathering place for my family for years. By “my family,” I mean it. My siblings and me, aunts, uncles, cousins, occasionally girlfriends and boyfriends and later spouses, grandparents, sometimes a stray college buddy with no other plans over the break.
We opened up the dining room table, added on an extra folding table or two if necessary and dug up every chair in the house, including the dusty chairs inherited from past generations that folded in various directions we had to rediscover.
Some years, there were 25 people around my parents’ table.
There were, of course, memories made. The year of the Really Bad Jell-o Mold. The year my younger cousin ate an onion like an apple for $5. The one time we ate so early we had to get some pizza later. The time the chocolate-covered strawberries never made it to the dessert table and by the time my aunt was on her way home and called to let us know, we’d already demolished them while watching The Three Stooges.
Occasionally a friend would drop by late, after everyone was gone and the family was basically passed out watching television.
That would be about 8 p.m., of course.
Now the family has spread out some. We’ve lost a generation in some parts of the family, and gained a generation in others. My parents host more like eight or 10 people; there are two, sometimes three branches of the family that get together at different locations.
Those are my family’s Thanksgiving traditions. I’m sure, if you’re in the U.S. or Canada, your family has some, too, be it a family meal or volunteering at a shelter or a protest.
How did we get here, though? What is the origin of us making hand-turkeys and playing pilgrims-and-Indians in elementary school? And am I even allowed to write those words in today’s world?
Most of what we know about the first Thanksgiving celebrations comes from Of Plymouth Plantation, a diary by William Bradford, who was governor on-and-off of what was then Plymouth Colony for about 30 years between 1621 and 1657, says Country Living.
Bradford noted in his manuscript that the pilgrims of Plymouth had enjoyed an especially good harvest in the fall of 1621. In honor of their good fortune, they planned a meal to celebrate and give thanks for the abundance of food. The local Wampanoag natives had worked along with the pilgrims to hunt, fish, and gather much of that food—and they’d even taught the pilgrims about many of those tactics in the first place. For that reason, they joined in to give thanks for it all (and yes, there was a cooked fowl dish, noted Bradford, but no mention of pie!).
“Prayers of thanks and special thanksgiving ceremonies are common among almost all religions after harvests and at other times,” notes Wikipedia. “The Thanksgiving holiday’s history in North America is rooted in English traditions dating from the Protestant Reformation. It also has aspects of a harvest festival.”
The Reformation was a time in the 16th century when England broke away from the Roman Catholic Church.
The first Thanksgiving wasn’t actually a Thanksgiving, points out National Geographic. Those early pilgrims who landed at Plymouth celebrated Thanksgiving with a fast, not a feast. Really, it was a harvest celebration, and a commemoration of a peace treaty that early English settlers and the Wampanoag signed about seven months earlier.
That treaty lasted 50 years, by the way.
But, National Geographic goes on to say:
• A year before the first Thanksgiving, the pilgrims raided Native American graves.
When the pilgrims arrived in Cape Cod, they were incredibly unprepared. “They were under the persistent belief that because New England is south of the Netherlands and southern England, it would therefore be warmer,” says Mann. “Then they showed up six weeks before winter with practically no food.”
In a desperate state, the pilgrims robbed corn from Native Americans graves and storehouses soon after they arrived; but because of their overall lack of preparation, half of them still died within their first year.
• The pilgrims could only settle at Plymouth because thousands of Native Americans, including many Wampanoag, had been killed by disease.
• The peace that led to the first Thanksgiving was driven by trade and tribal rivalries.
Before the Wampanoag suffered losses from disease, they had driven Europeans like John Smith away. “Now,” says [pilgrim settler] Mann, “the Wampanoag [were] much weaker because of the disease, and they’re much weaker than their hated adversaries, the Narragansett.”
Ann McMullen, curator at the National Museum of the American Indian, says that the Wampanoag weren’t necessarily looking to make alliances against the Narragansett; but “because the Wampanoag were in a slightly weakened position,” they realized that an alliance with the pilgrims “could fortify their strength.”
“There are always two sides of a story,” say the writers at Native Hope. “Unfortunately, when it comes to the history of Thanksgiving, generations of Americans have been taught a one-sided history in homes and schools.”
While the peace treaty with the Wampanoag may have been enforced after that first harvest dinner, the settlers went on to keep slaughtering other tribes, including the local Pequot.
Thanksgiving Is a Day of Mourning for Some Native Tribes
It’s important to know that for many Native Americans, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning and protest since it commemorates the arrival of settlers in North America and the centuries of oppression and genocide that followed after.
For the last 48 years, the United American Indians of New England have organized a rally and day of mourning on November 22nd. Here’s what they have to say about this choice to mourn on Thanksgiving:
“Thanksgiving day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands, and the relentless assault on Native culture. Participants in National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today. It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience.”
Other Native Americans still get together with friends and family, they go on to write, since the concept of Thanksgiving — giving without the expectation of reciprocity — is a Native tradition.
Susan Bates expounds a bit on the slaughter:
The story began in 1614 when a band of English explorers sailed home to England with a ship full of Patuxet Indians bound for slavery. They left behind smallpox which virtually wiped out those who had escaped. By the time the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts Bay they found only one living Patuxet Indian, a man named Squanto who had survived slavery in England and knew their language. He taught them to grow corn and to fish, and negotiated a peace treaty between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Nation. At the end of their first year, the Pilgrims held a great feast honoring Squanto and the Wampanoags.
But as word spread in England about the paradise to be found in the new world, religious zealots called Puritans began arriving by the boat load. Finding no fences around the land, they considered it to be in the public domain. Joined by other British settlers, they seized land, capturing strong young Natives for slaves and killing the rest. But the Pequot Nation had not agreed to the peace treaty Squanto had negotiated and they fought back. The Pequot War was one of the bloodiest Indian wars ever fought.
In 1637 near present day Groton, Connecticut, over 700 men, women and children of the Pequot Tribe had gathered for their annual Green Corn Festival which is our Thanksgiving celebration. In the predawn hours the sleeping Indians were surrounded by English and Dutch mercenaries who ordered them to come outside. Those who came out were shot or clubbed to death while the terrified women and children who huddled inside the longhouse were burned alive. The next day the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared “A Day Of Thanksgiving” because 700 unarmed men, women and children had been murdered.
Here’s the thing: History is written by the winners. It always has been.
While I do believe it’s important to acknowledge the truth in history, the fact is the history of humans is filled with people killing people who looked, sounded or believed differently from them, and then inflicting their beliefs on the defeated group.
So let’s do this, maybe: Let’s remember there seriously is plenty for everyone and learn to live with our differences moving forward. Let’s acknowledge that history is full of some people being shitty to other people for stupid reasons. But let’s allow our good traditions — gathering with friends and family, eating, being grateful, volunteering at shelters, whatever it is we do — to shine through.