Tag Archives: the First Thanksgiving

A GREAT HOLIDAY GIFT FOR FAMILY, FRIENDS, AND RANDOM STRANGERS

Even though it feels like it, the presidential campaign isn’t going to last forever.  Thanksgiving is four weeks from tomorrow, believe it or not, and it occurred to me that some of you might be interested in a book about Thanksgiving in advance of the holiday.  There are many good possibilities, but with utter shamelessness I’d like to suggest my own: The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History.

First Thanksgiving

The book came out in the fall of 2013 from Intervarsity Press, and it was a labor of love.  For years I had been gradually developing a new sense of vocation.  I believe that academic historians write too much for each other, leaving the public to learn about the past from pastors, talk-show hosts, rap musicians, and other public celebrities.  As a Christian historian, I have come to believe that part of my calling is to be a historian for Christians outside the Academy.  If you are a Christian who is interested in American history, I want to be in conversation with you about what it means to think Christianly and historically about the American past.  That is why I started this blog a few years back, and that is why I spent several years conducting research on the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving.

I didn’t write The First Thanksgiving primarily because I was enamored with the story and wanted to re-tell it accurately (although I hoped to do so).  Rather, it gradually dawned on me that this familiar story provided the perfect framework for exploring what it means, from a Christian perspective, to remember the past faithfully.  The story of the First Thanksgiving is central to how we, as Americans, remember our origins. The subsequent development of the Thanksgiving holiday speaks volumes about how we have defined our identity across the centuries. As Christians, our challenge is to “take every thought captive in obedience to Christ” (II Corinthians 10:5), including our thinking about our national heritage.  Thanksgiving is a good place to start.

LEARNING FROM THE PILGRIM STORY–PART ONE

Thanksgiving is only five days away, and so I’ll be ending my All-Thanksgiving-All-the-Time format pretty soon.  I realize that I’ve devoted a fair amount of time to talking about the ways that we remember the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving incorrectly.  I want to conclude with a few posts that touch upon the positive lessons we might learn from a more accurate encounter with the Pilgrims.  The Pilgrims had their blind spots—as do we—but they were also people of faith and courage and hope, and there is much in their example to teach, admonish, and inspire us.  What are the positives that we might glean from their story?

To begin with, there is also much in the Pilgrims’ story that is genuinely inspiring.  We live in a cynical age, and it can seem almost embarrassingly naïve for an academic to describe any subject from the past as inspirational, but no other word in this instance will do.  The Pilgrims endured trials far more arduous than most of us have ever experienced, and they did so with courage and determination and hope and gratitude.  They evinced these traits, furthermore, as part of a larger expression of loyalty and devotion to something outside of themselves—to God above all, of course; to the “sacred bond” and covenant that tied them to their brothers and sisters in Christ; and to their sons and daughters, both born and unborn.

Living in an age in which we reward self-promotion and cheapen the virtues of fortitude and perseverance—attributing them, for instance, to millionaire athletes who play games for a living—there is much in their story that is refreshingly subversive.  And as a father, I am especially touched that so many of their sacrifices were with the welfare of their children and their children’s children in mind.  They left all that was familiar to them and risked everything they had, as one of their earliest chroniclers put it, “in order to preserve to their children a life of the soul.”  I call that an inspiring example.

"The Landing of the Pilgrims," by Henry A. Bacon, 1877

“The Landing of the Pilgrims,” by Henry A. Bacon, 1877

But there is more to their example, it is important to stress, than their actual behavior during the moment of trial.  As impressive as it was, we probably place too much emphasis on the Pilgrims’ courage in crossing the angry Atlantic or their humility and hope in celebrating after the horrors of a deadly winter.  The trials that they endured brought to the surface their theology as well as their character, and I suspect that the latter, which we often admire, was largely a product of the former, which we tend to ignore.  As Jesus taught His disciples, the wise man built his house on a rock before the rains fell and the flood came, by hearing His words and doing them as part of the fabric of daily life (Luke 7:24-27).

Surely it made a difference, when it looked as though the ocean would swallow them, that the Pilgrims had long been taught that God was both good and loving, and that not even a sparrow fell to the ground apart from the Father’s will (Matthew 10:29).

Surely it changed their perspective, when parting from their dearest friends on earth, to recall what they had long believed, that the world was not their home, that their real destination was a heavenly country, a city that God had prepared for them (Hebrews 11:16).

Surely it helped, when exposure and starvation stalked them, to bring to mind the Psalmist’s words, “I know, O Lord, that Your judgments are right, and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me” (Psalm 119:75).

Surely it heartened them to remember the sermons of their beloved pastor in Leiden, John Robinson, who had taught them that God brought hardship into their lives as a mercy, “to wean us from the love of the world” and “to make the glory which shall be showed, and whereof our afflictions are not worthy, the more glorious.”  This was hard teaching, no doubt, but it was proven by suffering, and we can’t make sense of the Pilgrims’ behavior apart from it.

While the Pilgrims’ story is inspirational it is also encouraging, which is a related but different thing.  Figures from the past inspire us when they make us want to grow in godliness; they encourage us when they help us to believe that that is possible.  None of the Pilgrims was a superhuman, larger-than-life hero of the faith.  As a nineteenth-century writer accurately noted, they were “plain” men and women “of moderate abilities.”

But it’s not just that they lacked extraordinary talents; they were fallen, and it showed.  They argued among themselves, they struggled with doubt, they were tempted by mammon.  To an extent, they revealed their flaws inadvertently, in private correspondence that they surely never expected to see the light of day.  But in large part, we know of the Pilgrims’ fleshly struggles because William Bradford purposed to document them, and I am so glad that he did.

The Pilgrims’ longtime governor would not have made a popular Thanksgiving Day speaker.  Unlike the succession of statesmen who flattered their audiences with purple prose, lauding their adopted ancestors for their unsurpassed wisdom and nobility, Bradford chose instead to underline their shortcomings.  The first colonists had survived and flourished, Bradford insisted in his history Of Plymouth Plantation, not because of their many strengths and virtues, but in spite of “all their weaknesses and infirmities.”  In emphasizing that truth, he gave greater glory to God and offered greater hope to us.

By his own account, Bradford emphasized the Lord’s strength and the Pilgrims’ weakness for two main reasons: so that his readers “in like cases might be encouraged to depend upon God in their trials, and also to bless His name when they see His goodness towards others.”  Might we respond in the same way?

KIRK CAMERON’S “MONUMENTAL” PILGRIMS–PART ONE

On the whole, the Pilgrims haven’t fared well in modern-day popular memory. We tend to caricature them—clothing them in buckles and black hats and arming them with blunderbusses. We sometimes condemn them—casting them as religious fanatics intolerant of difference and suspicious of anything fun. What we seldom do is consider them carefully, opening ourselves to the possibility that they might have something to teach us. I wrote The First Thanksgiving not because I’m a Pilgrim groupie, but because I was convinced that when we take their story seriously we can learn a lot about ourselves—about what we love, how we see the world, and how we live within it.

Unfortunately, when amateur historians have taken the Pilgrims seriously they have typically produced what Christian historian Mark Noll calls “ideological history.” Ideological history succumbs to the temptation to go to the past for ammunition instead of illumination—to “prove points” instead of to gain understanding. We fall into this trap whenever we know too definitely what we want to find in the past, when we can already envision how our anticipated “discoveries” will reinforce values that we already hold or promote agendas to which we are already committed. Rush Limbaugh’s Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims is a textbook example of this kind of history. (I’ve written on it most recently here and here.)  If you buy this book you won’t learn much about the Pilgrims’ worldview, but you will learn a great deal about Rush Limbaugh’s.

You don’t have to be a liberal academic or a partisan talk-show host to fashion ideological history, however. Well-meaning Christians do so all the time as well. When it comes to our treatment of the Pilgrims, a classic case in point would be Kirk Cameron’s 2012 feature-length documentary, Monumental. I want to say up front that I have nothing personal against Kirk Cameron. Many of the critical reviews of Monumental on the internet ooze condescension and contempt; they seem to flow from a starting point that takes for granted the absurdity of an evangelical perspective on anything. That is not where I am coming from, and I hope that is obvious. I want to stand with Kirk Cameron in his apparent desire to honor God and train his children in biblical wisdom. But I must stand against his approach to American history, which is both historically inaccurate and theologically confused. In this post and the next two, I want to explain what I mean.

Monumental

Although I am sure Cameron’s intentions are honorable, Monumental exhibits all the marks of ideological history. The documentary is not interested in understanding the complexity of the Pilgrims’ values and beliefs. Cameron and co-producer Marshall Foster are on a quest for ammunition more than enlightenment. Committed to a particular set of values, they want to use the Pilgrims to make a historical argument for their contemporary agenda. In their hands, the Pilgrims become two-dimensional props for an extended infomercial.

A case in point would be the central premise on which the documentary is grounded. According to Cameron, the documentary “seeks to discover America’s true ‘national treasure’— the people, places, and principles that made America the freest, most prosperous and generous nation the world has ever known.” His search leads him to the Pilgrims. “There’s no question,” Cameron explains, that “the tiny band of religious outcasts who founded this country hit upon a formula for success that went way beyond what they could have imagined. How else can you explain the fact that they established a nation that has become the best example of civil, economic and religious liberty the world has ever known?”

So the Pilgrims “founded this country”? They “established” this nation? Really? I will pass over the utter illogic of such a statement to focus on a more important point: The Pilgrims weren’t remotely thinking about founding a country, nor would they want to be remembered for doing so. They were English to the core and came to North America, in part, to try to preserve aspects of their English identity. As Pilgrim Edward Winslow later recalled, they feared “how like we were to lose our language and our name of English” if they remained in Holland.

But more important than their English identity was their identity in Christ, which was paramount in their thinking. Arguably the most important aspect of the Pilgrim’s worldview is also the easiest for us to overlook, precisely because it seems so very familiar to us. Here it is: the Pilgrims thought of themselves as “pilgrims.” Monumental misses this completely.

Here is what I mean. The powerful message originally contained in the word pilgrim is now mostly lost on us. We speak of “the Pilgrims” without thinking about the term, using it as a kind of shorthand title for the group that came over on the Mayflower and played a role in the founding of America. Literally, the word “pilgrim” refers to a person on a journey, often, but not always, to a place of particular religious significance. When Americans first began to speak of “the Pilgrims” in the 1790s this meaning was still understood, but even then it was common to mistake the group’s destination. In annual commemorations of the (supposed) landing at Plymouth Rock (a landmark the Pilgrims themselves never mentioned), orators repeatedly described the Pilgrims as religiously motivated but worldly focused.

In 1820, for example, Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster figuratively positioned the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock and invited his audience to listen in as their ancestors contemplated the future of the land to which God had brought them. “We shall plant here a new society,” the senator imagined the Pilgrims saying to one another. “We shall here begin a work that shall last for ages” they vowed, as they peered into the future and saw the fulfillment of their vision in a new country built upon Pilgrim principles.

Toward the close of the nineteenth century, a popular magazine employed a similar rhetorical convention to make the same point. This time it was the Pilgrims’ elder William Brewster who stood alone on the rock and supposedly prophesied:

Blessed will it be for us, blessed for this land, for this vast continent! Nay, from generation to generation will the blessing descend. Generations to come shall look back to this hour . . . and say: “Here was our beginning as a people. These were our fathers. Through their trials we inherit our blessings. Their faith is our faith; their hope is our hope; their God our God.”

Countless politicians, preachers, and writers echoed the point: The tiny Pilgrim band had forged the “nucleus of a mighty civilization.” They “were among the main foundation-layers of our Great Republic.” They brought with them “the germ of our national life.”

Monumental perpetuates this view. As told by Cameron and Foster, the Pilgrims’ journey ended when they reached the shores of America. The future United States was their Canaan, their promised land. It can be inspiring to remember their story that way. According to both Governor William Bradford and Deacon Robert Cushman, however, that’s not how the Pilgrims themselves saw it. Certainly, they were searching for an earthly location where they could perpetuate proper worship and earn a better living, but to the degree that the Pilgrims thought of themselves as “pilgrims,” they meant that they were temporary travelers in a world that was not their home.

This is clear from the context in which Bradford famously used the term in his history Of Plymouth Plantation. Toward the middle of book I, Bradford movingly described the Pilgrims’ departure from Holland, as the members of the Leiden congregation who were leaving for America said goodbye to the friends and loved ones remaining behind. (Bradford himself was leaving his three-year-old son.) With “an abundance of tears,” Bradford recalled, the group left “that goodly and pleasant city which had been their resting place near twelve years; but they knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lift up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits.”

As he penned these words, Bradford was almost certainly thinking of the eleventh chapter of the book of Hebrews, that great survey of Old Testament heroes of the faith. There, in the text of the 1596 edition Geneva Bible that Bradford brought with him to Plymouth, we read that these men and women “confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on earth.” The writer goes on to explain that any “that say such things [i.e., think of themselves as pilgrims], declare plainly, that they seek a country,” but the country sought is a “heavenly” one (Hebrews 11:13-16).

In a much less known passage actually written earlier, Deacon Cushman employed similar imagery. In an essay published in 1622, Cushman reviewed the argument for “removing out of England into the parts of America.” In the introduction, Cushman emphasized that God no longer gave particular lands to any people, as he once had given Canaan to the nation of Israel. “But now we are all in all places strangers and pilgrims, travelers and sojourners,” Cushman observed, “having no dwelling but in this earthen tabernacle.” Perhaps with II Corinthians 5:1 in mind, the deacon elaborated, “Our dwelling is but a wandering, and our abiding but as a fleeting, and in a word our home is nowhere, but in the heavens, in that house not made with hands, whose maker and builder is God, and to which all ascend that love the coming of our Lord Jesus.”

Potentially, we can remember the Pilgrims as our spiritual ancestors and still preserve their understanding of “pilgrimage.” When we remember them as our national ancestors, however—as key figures in the founding of America—we unwittingly refashion that sense of pilgrimage into something they wouldn’t recognize. Monumental does this repeatedly.

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WHEN FICTION BECOMES FACT: THE NOVEL THAT TAUGHT AMERICANS ABOUT THE FIRST THANKSGIVING

In my last post I noted that Americans have long been tempted to make up stuff about the First Thanksgiving.  This is true, in part, because so little evidence about the event has survived.  The only surviving firsthand account of the Pilgrims’ 1621 celebration comes from the pen of Pilgrim Edward Winslow, who wrote the following brief description in a letter to England not long afterward:

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 labours.  They four, in one day, killed as much fowl as, with a little help besides, 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, Massasoyt, 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.

These 115 words don’t give us a whole lot to go on, do they?  And yet Americans have constructed quite an elaborate edifice on this flimsy foundation.

In actuality, much of what might be called the “traditional” memory of the Pilgrim’s 1621 celebration dates from the late-nineteenth century.  This was a time when “television was called books,” to quote the grandfather in The Princess Bride, and no book was more successful in making the First Thanksgiving “come alive” than a best-selling historical novel by Jane Austin.

Jane G. Austin

Jane G. Austin

No, not Jane Austen, the early-nineteenth century British writer famous for novels like Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility.  I’m referring to Jane Austin (notice the different spelling of the last name), the late-nineteenth century American author of such literary classics as A Nameless Nobleman, Mrs. Beauchamp Brown, and Nantucket Scraps.  In 1889 this fifty-eight-year-old New England wife and mother penned Standish of Standish: A Story of the Pilgrims, and in the process created a stereotypical view of the First Thanksgiving that has lasted for generations.

Austin promised her readers that they would “not be misled as to facts, though these be strung upon a slender thread of romance.”  In reality, romance dominates the plot, and as for the facts, well, let’s just say that they were few and far between.  Historical novels always involve some combination of fact and faction, but Austin embellished the historical record with a vengeance.  This was particularly true of her chapter on “The First Thanksgiving of New England,” where she had few known facts to constrain her and could let her imagination run wild.  My own (conservative) guess would be that 99 percent of the material in this chapter is pure invention.

To begin with, there is a pervasive romantic tension that reads like the script of a network soap opera.  In this one single chapter (out of forty) we learn that John Howland is interested in Elizabeth Tilley (and that both enjoy popcorn); that the widower Bradford has apparently been making eyes at Mary Chilton; that the widower Allerton has proposed unsuccessfully to Priscilla Mullins; that Priscilla only has eyes for John Alden, though he has yet to succumb to her “saucy” and “bewitching” glances; that Myles Standish is infatuated with Priscilla; and that Standish is secretly admired by Desire Minter, who has enlisted the aid of an Indian woman in brewing a love potion that will win his affections.  “Slender thread” indeed.

Significantly, Austin also creatively embellished Winslow’s skeletal description of the Pilgrims’ celebration.  She tells us which four men the governor sent hunting, who was dispatched to invite Massasoit, which three men welcomed the Indians when they arrived at sunrise on a Thursday morning, what Edward Winslow was doing at that precise moment (he was buttoning his doublet), and what Massasoit’s brother thought to himself as he marveled at the Pilgrims’ marksmanship.

As Austen tells the story, however, the Indians soon recede into the background, and this Victorian housewife reserves her most lavish detail for the imagined culinary accomplishments and domestic sensibilities of the Pilgrim womenfolk.  We read that “by noon the long tables were spread” in the most idyllic of settings, as “the thick yellow sunshine filtered through with just warmth enough for comfort, and the sighing southerly breeze brought wafts of perfume from the forest.”  The menu for the banquet would have done honor to a Boston hotel.  There were numerous enormous turkeys, of course (“more succulent” than “any I ever saw at home,” according to John Alden), perfectly complemented by Priscilla Alden’s beechnut stuffing.  But there was much, much more:

The oysters in the scallop shells were a singular success [the ladies had fried the oysters in a mixture of bread crumbs, spices, and wine, and placed a serving of the delicacy in a clamshell at each man’s place], and so were the mighty venison pasties, and the savory stew compounded of all that flies the air, and all that flies the hunter in Plymouth woods, no longer flying now but swimming in a glorious broth cunningly seasoned by Priscilla’s anxious hand, and thick bestead with dumplings of barley flour, light, toothsome, and satisfying.  Besides there were roasts of various kinds, and thin cakes of bread or manchets [loaves or rolls made from the finest wheat flour], and bowls of salad set off with wreaths of autumn leaves laid around them, and great baskets of grapes, white and purple, and of the native plum, so delicious when fully ripe in its three colors of black, white, and red.

Martha Stewart, meet Priscilla Alden.

You’ve got to give Austin credit for a lively imagination, and in truth, the problem with Standish of Standish doesn’t lie in its grandiose embellishment of the historical record, per se.  There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with historical fiction as long as we know that’s what we’re getting.  Austin was far from candid about the extent of her embellishment, however, and we can only wonder how long her nose grew when she promised her readers that they would “not be misled as to facts.”  What is certain is that the public adored how she made the past come alive.

Austin’s novel went through twenty-eight printings and has shaped popular memories of the First Thanksgiving ever since.  In 1897 the national magazine Ladies’ Home Journal drew heavily from Austin’s novel for an article titled “The First Thanksgiving Dinner.”  Only eight years after the publication of Standish of Standish, Austin’s fictional recreation was so widely accepted that the magazine repeated her details as unquestioned historical fact.

W.L. Taylor, 1897

W.L. Taylor, 1897

The Journal did add one important contribution to the story, however.  While Standish of Standish had included no illustrations, the magazine’s article was headed by a sketch from an artist named W. L. Taylor.  The drawing, widely reproduced and imitated, featured the now familiar portrayal of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag seated at a heavily-laden banquet table, the Indians obviously uncomfortable in such a formal setting, the Pilgrims—decked out in black suits, white lace collars, and high steepled hats—much more at ease.

The stereotype was now complete.

 

THANKSGIVING AND FOOTBALL: IT’S AN OLDER TRADITION THAN YOU THINK

turkeyball

One of my favorite cartoons about the First Thanksgiving shows several Pilgrim and Wampanoag women in the foreground setting a table for a huge feast, while in the background their husbands (both Native American and Pilgrim) are playing a rousing game of football.  Obviously worn out from cooking, one woman turns to another and says “I sure hope this doesn’t get to be a tradition!”

So how old, really, is the connection between Thanksgiving and football?  A lot older than most of us would guess.  As early as 1928, the Saturday Evening Post cover below suggested the centrality of football to America’s Thanksgiving.  Notice the almost perfect symmetry between the two figures.

From the November 24, 1928 cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

From the November 24, 1928 cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

The cartoon below suggests that the Thanksgiving-football connection is even older, however.  This very busy cartoon by Samuel Ehrhart appeared in Puck in the year 1912.  (Puck was a popular national humor magazine published between 1871 and 1918.)  Notice how the crowds are flocking to see the advertised football contest pitting “Ye Pilgrims versus Ye Indians” at 2:00 p.m.  Even before WWI, then, Americans had come to take for granted the link between Thanksgiving and football, and the cartoon’s gag consists of imagining our ancestors from the 17th century as enjoying the same pastime.

03749v

 

But the Thanksgiving-football connection actually goes back much further than this.  One hundred thirty-eight years ago—in 1876—the newly formed Intercollegiate Football Association (with all of four member schools) determined to hold its first championship game in New York City on Thanksgiving Day.  In no time at all the annual Thanksgiving Day championship game had become the country’s premier sporting event, drawing crowds upwards of forty thousand by the early 1890s.

From Harper's Weekly, December 20, 1879

From Harper’s Weekly, December 20, 1879

 

In 1891, a writer for Harper’s Weekly observed that in New York “a great and powerful and fascinating rival has come to take the place of the Thanksgiving Day Dinner . . . the Thanksgiving Day Game.”  Soon big “rivalry” games were becoming Thanksgiving traditions in Washington, Chicago, St. Louis, and Los Angeles.  Significantly, they were also spreading into southern cities, and it is no exaggeration to say that the growing popularity of Thanksgiving Day football helped to reconcile southerners to the Yankee holiday.  By 1893 the tradition was so entrenched that the New York Herald could lament, “Thanksgiving Day is no longer a solemn festival to God for mercies given. . . . It is a holiday granted by the State and the Nation to see a game of football.”

Football wasn’t the only option for those inclined to pleasure on this once “holy day,” however.  By the end of the century there were car races in Chicago; bicycle races in Los Angeles; balls, parties, golf tournaments, and theater matinees in the nation’s capital.  While a West Coast journalist insisted that “the mingling of sports with prayer harms no well-regulated normal community,” a Chicago newsman predicted that “the churches will have to devise some more attractive program . . . if the religious feature of Thanksgiving Day is to be preserved.”  The year of this warning was 1897.

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THE MENU AT THE FIRST THANKSGIVING

I just got off the phone with a reporter from a Boston newspaper who wanted to take advantage of my years of research on the First Thanksgiving. She had left a message on my phone earlier, so I had a moment to speculate about the questions she might ask. My mind raced over the possibilities.

“Perhaps she wants to discuss the Pilgrims’ motivations for coming to New England,” I thought to myself. That’s a rich and complex question that is key to the Pilgrims’ world view.

“Or possibly she is fascinated with how the Pilgrim Story came to be viewed as an important chapter in the founding of the United States,” I mused. “Maybe we’ll get to talk about the role that the First Thanksgiving has played in cultural memory, and the way that our memories of Thanksgiving say a lot about what we value, or think we value, as a people.” My excitement grew.

“Or perhaps she understands the priceless value of history as a conversation with the past in search of insight, perspective, and wisdom,” I silently rhapsodized. “Maybe she’ll ask how we might learn from the Pilgrims and not just about them. Shoot, she might even ask whether there’s anything in the history of Thanksgiving that we need to hear, something that would challenge, or convict, or even inspire us!” I was giddy with anticipation.

And then I returned her call. “I’m doing a piece on the First Thanksgiving,” the reporter stated matter-of-factly, “and I want to talk with you about what was on the menu.”

Sigh.

Actually, I wasn’t that surprised.  Since The First Thanksgiving came out a little over a year ago, I’ve done about forty radio interviews concerning the book, and the question of what the Pilgrims and Wampanoag had to eat has featured prominently in almost every one of them.

I still remember a live call-in show hosted by a smaller station in the midwest.  I spoke briefly at the outset, explaining some of the ways that a truer understanding of the First Thanksgiving can illuminate what it means to think Christianly about the past.  To say that the switchboard didn’t light up once the phones were opened would be an understatement.  After a few painful minutes (that seemed like hours), the host finally announced that there was a caller on line one.  The sweet older lady thanked me profusely for my book–on my end of the line I was blushing–and  then she posed the question that she keenly hoped I could answer.  “Is it true,” she asked, “that the First Thanksgiving meal included succotash?”

I plan to continue my series on “The First Thanksgiving in American Memory” in a day or two, but today I’ll interrupt that thread to focus on the Thanksgiving menu.

First, you can find an informative essay on the topic over at the website for the Smithsonian magazine.

Second, here’s a short You-Tube video of an interview with yours truly on the topic.

Finally, here’s what I had to share about the meal in The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History:

. . . We can get too caught up in discussing what they [the Pilgrims and Wampanoag] had to eat, but it is worth noting that almost nothing we associate with a “traditional” Thanksgiving meal would have been on the menu. That generalization starts with the main course. From Edward Winslow’s account of the feast it is clear that they had some kind of “fowl,” but nowhere does he refer to turkey specifically. Certainly there were turkeys around. Bradford remembered that there was a “great store of wild turkeys” as winter approached, and later visitors to Plymouth often made similar observations. But there were also eagles, pigeons, and partridges, as well as “swarms and multitudes” of waterfowl: geese, ducks, swans, herons, and cranes.

And the waterfowl were incomparably easier to catch. When he visited Plymouth a few years later, an agent of the Dutch West India Company described the wild turkeys that he hunted there as having “very long legs” that enabled them to run “extraordinarily fast.” Even “when one has deprived them of the power of flying,” he marveled, “they yet run so fast that we cannot catch them unless their legs are hit also.” In contrast, in his opinion the “great many geese” were “easy to shoot, inasmuch as they congregate together in such large flocks.”

His Pilgrim hosts surely agreed, for their matchlock muskets were so long and heavy that they typically used tripod-like “stands” to support the barrel while they waited for something edible to cross their field of fire. Given the flocks of ducks and geese that descended each autumn on the area’s numerous lakes and ponds, the four men that Governor Bradford sent “on fowling” likely concealed themselves at the water’s edge and then blasted away. It was less sporting than chasing roadrunner-like turkeys through the woods, but undoubtedly more efficient.

To complement the game birds that the hunters brought back, the Pilgrims may have added fresh fish, mussels and clams, and perhaps eels, which could be caught in September “with small labor.” The “trimmings,” which were less plentiful, would have included Indian corn (ground and used to make porridge or “succotash”) as well as what the Pilgrims called “sallet herbs”: vegetables from their gardens such as collard greens, parsnips, turnips, carrots, onions, spinach, and cabbage. (If you’re striving for authenticity, try serving turnips and eel next Thanksgiving.) There would have been no sweet potatoes, which were not native to North America and largely unavailable in England except among the very wealthy. Cranberry sauce would have been missing as well, since the sugar so vital to the dish was unavailable. Nor, sad to say, was there any pumpkin pie. The Pilgrims lacked the butter and flour for the pie crust and faced the added problem of having no ovens for baking. Everything they ate would have been boiled or roasted.

As we imagine them enjoying this banquet—heavy on poultry and fish, light on vegetables and sweets—remember also that the buildings the Pilgrims had erected were tiny, that tables and even chairs were scarce, that knives were rare and that forks were nonexistent. (The latter were available in England by this time but little used among common folk, who dismissed them as a “foppish pretension.”) In our mind’s eye, then, we should picture an outdoor feast in which almost everyone was sitting on the ground and eating with their hands—more like a picnic or cookout than the formal domestic scene we have come to associate with the holiday.

I didn’t share these facts about the menu simply to explode popular myths, much less to help the occasional reader who genuinely wants to recreate an historically authentic Thanksgiving meal.  (I’m all for historical accuracy, but who really wants to exchange turkey and stuffing for turnips and eel?)  I do want to help us see how naturally we embellish the past, how easily we project on the past values and practices that don’t belong there.  “The past is a foreigh country,” British novelist L.P. Hartley once wrote; “they do things differently there.”  When we forget that basic truth, we rob history of much of its power to challenge and change us.

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TALKING ABOUT THE FIRST THANKSGIVING ON “FAMILY LIFE TODAY”

Since it came out a little more than a year ago,  I have done thirty-three interviews on my book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History No television yet (I’m still waiting for a call from Good Morning, America), but a l0t of radio and a smattering of podcasts mixed in.  I’ve done everything from podcasts from a preacher’s garage to drive-time shows in major urban markets like Dallas and Denver, St. Louis and San Francisco.

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All of the interviews have been with Christian venues.  I suppose the book’s subtitle scares everybody else away.  Probably because all of my interviewers have been Christian, they have all been pretty sympathetic interviews.  Although it would be bad form to ask them, I suspect that very few of my interviewers have actually read the book.  There have been exceptions, but not many.

At the end of the summer I had my first opportunity to do an interview for a national audience.  I flew to Little Rock, Arkansas, headquarters of the Christian Ministry Family Life, started by Dennis and Barbara Rainey, and our conversation on the program Family Life Today will be aired in two segments next Monday and Tuesday, November 3-4.  You can listen online on those days by going to the FamilyLife website.  Alternatively, the website also can tell you which radio stations in your area carry the program.

Have a great weekend.