Part #2 – One Mention in History
It is amazing that only 115 words support the historical event that has mushroomed into a treasured and monolithic celebration known as ‘American Thanksgiving’. It was Edward Winslow, Governor Bradford’s younger assistant, who wrote a November 1621 ‘fund-raising’ letter to the supporting merchants back in London, England. Emphasizing the Plymouth colony’s success and prosperity over stress and death, he wrote three sentences.
Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit 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 among 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.
- Lock onto these words: special manner rejoicing; after we had gather the fruit of our labors; Indians amongst us; bestowed … This was a gathering out of the ordinary. It was communal, it crossed cultures, it recognized harvesting the efforts of farming and hunting, and it affirms gift giving.
- Note what is missing: worship, prayer, thanking God, turkey, date of the feast,
It seems to me that historical guessing, informed conjecture, plus nostalgic and creative story-telling have filled in the unknown blanks over the centuries. As McKenzie points out, the Massasoit could have been invited guests or obnoxious neighbors who come knocking when they smelled the barbecue (or heard the noise of a Pilgrim party). There is of course nothing wrong with a celebration that evolves. But like Christmas, a lot gets fabricated and then a label of authenticity is stamped on the final product.
No one can argue that American Thanksgiving is a complex weave of spiritual, historical and cultural elements resulting in a national identity with profound significance.
These insights are based on the book THE FIRST THANKSGIVING by Robert Tracy McKenzie, Inter Varsity Press Academic, 2013.