The Thanksgiving Story, As Amended


From Isabell Call, “Thanksgrieving"
Although both Native American and Europeans had feasts expressing gratitude during harvest time, the Europeans who arrived on this continent were incredibly destructive to Native American communities. The Wampanoag man often celebrated as a friend of the pilgrims, Tisquantum, spoke English because traders had enslaved him and forcibly taken him to England. When he finally escaped and made his way back home, his community had all died from smallpox his captors had left behind. He was friendly to the pilgrims who moved into the land of his people because none of his own people were left. He was able to find work with the pilgrims as a translator and helped them negotiate treaties. But as we know, treaties between European settlers and the indigenous residents of America have not been honored by the new arrivals.

And although there's some evidence of a shared meal between Europeans and Wampanoag people in 1621, the holiday may actually have started a few decades later, in May 1637, when English and Dutch mercenaries attacked the Pequot Tribe. They killed over 700 people, and the next day the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared a day of Thanksgiving in celebration.

Since then, various governors and presidents called for days of Thanksgiving to commemorate various events, but it didn't get formalized into an annual holiday until Abraham Lincoln chose a Thursday in November in 1863 to celebrate Civil War victories.

The 400-year-old story we've heard about harmony between people of different backgrounds just isn't true. The United American Indians of New England have commemorated a National Day of Mourning every fourth Thursday in November since 1970. They write:
"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.”
We celebrate Thanksgiving because gratitude is essential to human life. But grief is essential for healing our history of violence. It's really hard to be thankful and sorrowful at the same time. But this is life: sometimes, joy and sorrow come together.

Religion is stories, and music, enacted in ritual. Our ancestors gathered around campfires. There would be drumming and dancing, chanting or singing. And there would be story-telling. The stories helped them make sense of themselves. The stories told the people’s history. They would tell of how the world came to be, and how the plants and animals came to be, and how they themselves, the people, came to be. They didn’t know how the world, and life, came to be so they guessed, using imagination to fashion a tale that seemed to them credible.

We do the same thing today. Long ago, people attended to the stories of the wise ones in long cloaks called shamans. Today we attend to the stories of the wise ones in white coats called astrophysicists. Our story today is that there was a singularity 14 billion years ago that expanded into the universe as we know it. Our story today is continually revised by the results of experiments that we designed for the purpose of learning things that would compel us to revise our story.

The astrophysicists’ story has a lot more math in it than the shamans’ story of old. But our story, like the ones our first story-telling ancestors told, has, at its heart, mystery. We don’t know what made the singularity happen, and our early ancestors didn’t know what force had brought forth the soil, mountains, rivers, sun, moon, stars, plants, animals – and themselves. It all began in mystery. The old stories and the new story alike begin in mystery.

And then it unfolded. When the unfolding involved something that didn’t seem to fit what people could do, what animals or plants could do, what earth or sky or wind or fire or water could do, the story-teller brought another character into the story – with an agency that could do what otherwise seemed un-do-able. We might translate the name of that character as spirit, or Great Spirit. It was something mysterious, and there were a lot of very different stories about it, but what the stories had in common was: the great and mysterious agent knew things and wanted things. It had knowledge and desires and intentions. How else could mountains, or people, come to be, except through the intention of some creative force? (It turns out, there is an answer to that question. But it’s an answer with a lot of math in it.)

The stories and the music and the dance were done in a ritualized way – or were done together with ritual. These were ways, maybe, our ancestors sought to influence the mystery that had powers, knowledge, and desires. They were ways to help them feel connected to this mystery with powers and intentions. It helped them be at peace with the mystery they could not control or influence.

We continue today to gather – have music, a little ritual, and tell stories about where we come from, to help us know who we are. Different religions have different stories, different rituals, different moral codes, and play different music. They aren’t so much different paths all headed up the same mountain as different paths headed up different mountains. But they are all religions – which means they have stories, music, and ritual to convey a sense of who we are, what is our place in the family of things, what is ours to do, what we are here to try to be.

Who are we? Where do we come from? And why do we share in practices of Thanksgiving? Therefore, we will today retell the ritual story of Thanksgiving. It is that time of year, so let that story be today re-told. But we Unitarians are not only a story-telling people, as all people are. We are also a story-revising people, continually updating our story in light of new evidence, new understandings, and new sensibilities. Our openness to new evidence and readiness to revise is a distinguishing characteristic of our liberal faith.

So when we re-tell again the Thanksgiving story, we will be considering amendments as we go. You will have the chance to vote on those amendments by raising your voting card like we do at General Assembly – your voting card is your Order of Service.


BIRCH: [gavels] I call this story telling session to order. Story teller, you may proceed.

MEREDITH: Our story. The Pilgrims were not the first people to land on the shores of New England. The area was first discovered in 1524 by Giovanni de Verrazzano, who explored the Atlantic Coast from Florida to New Brunswick.

[Delegate 1 raises hand, comes to microphone]

BIRCH: The chair recognizes the delegate from Norwalk.

DELEGATE 1: Mx. Chair, I move to amend. Giovanni de Verrazzano did not discover New England. There were people already here. Say instead, “Verrazzano was the first European to explore the Atantic Coast of what is now called North America.”

BIRCH: Those in favor of incorporating the amendment, raise your Order of Service.... The amendment is incorporated.

[Delegate 1 sits]

MEREDITH: Let’s back up further, then, and say who did discover this land. This region we call North America was discovered by peoples who came over the Bering land bridge about 16 thousand years ago. They split into branches and spread across the continent. These were the discoverers of our land. [Delegate 2 raises hand, comes to microphone]

BIRCH: The chair recognizes the delegate from the south side.

DELEGATE 2: Mx. Chair, move to amend. These people did not discover this region either. There were animals already here. I might mention in particular the Carolina Parakeet, extinct since 1918. I’d nominate them for discoverers of our region.

BIRCH: Perhaps we should remove the word “discover” altogether?

DELEGATE 2: Yes, that’s the amendment I propose.

BIRCH: All in favor of striking the word discover, raise your Order of Service.... The amendment is incorporated.

[Delegate 2 sits]

MEREDITH: As they split into branches and spread across the continent, one of the branches, about 14 or 15 thousand years ago, became the first humans to inhabit the area we call Massachusetts. Then in 1524, Giovanni de Verrazzano explored this area. John Cabot and Jacques Cartier also charted in the vicinity. In 1609, Henry Hudson made his way up what we call the Hudson River. These explorers sometimes captured and enslaved natives – and they brought diseases. Europeans had developed immunity to these diseases, but the natives had not. The Wampanoag, for instance, in 1600 numbered 50,000 to 100,000, occupying 69 villages scattered throughout the region that is now southeastern Massachusetts and eastern Rhode Island. The plague from Europe killed up to two-thirds of them. Many also were captured and sold as slaves.

In 1614, a Wampanoag boy named Tisquantum was abducted from his village, Patuxet. Tisquantum was sold as a slave in Spain, then escaped to England. After several years, Tisquantum was able to get back to Turtle Island (what we call North America). When he returned to his village, he discovered there were no other surviving Patuxet -- the rest were either killed in battle or died of disease brought from Europe.

In 1620, the Mayflower landed at Plymouth rock bringing 102 Pilgrims.

[Delegate 3 raises hand, comes to microphone]

BIRCH: The chair recognizes the delegate from Clive.

DELEGATE 3: Mx. Chair, point of factual clarification. Did these people call themselves “Pilgrims”?

BIRCH: Fact checker?

ELLIOTT: They did not. Not until the 20th-century did “Pilgrim” come to refer to the people who came over on the Mayflower. They called themselves “Saints”.

DELEGATE 3: It’s disrespectful to them to call them something they didn’t call themselves. I move we call them Saints.

[Delegate 4 raises hand, comes to microphone and nudges aside delegate 3]

BIRCH: The chair recognizes the delegate from Beaverdale.

DELEGATE 4: Mx. Chair, I oppose this amendment. It may be disrespectful to them to call them Pilgrims, but it’s disrespectful to us to call them “saints” – because we’re pretty sure they weren’t.

BIRCH: Fact checker, was there some other name?

ELLIOTT: They were Puritans.

BIRCH: Will the delegate accept an amendment to the amendment, to call them Puritans.

DELEGATE 3: I will.

[Delegates 3 and 4 sit]

BIRCH: The amendment is to call the people on the Mayflower “Puritans.” All in favor, raise your Order of Service.... The amendment is incorporated.

MEREDITH: These . . . Puritans settled in an area that was once Patuxet, the Wampanoag village abandoned because of the plague. The English did not see any Wampanoag that first winter at all. They only caught a rare glimpse of a fleeting shadow of the land's inhabitants until March 1621 when Samoset, a Monhegan from Maine, came to the village. The next day, Samoset returned with Tisquantum.

Tisquantum had learned English during his abduction, so he could talk to the settlers and serve as a translator. Tisquantum showed them how to plant corn, fish and gather berries and nuts. The crop seeds the colonists had brought with them failed, so without the help of Tisquantum – also called Squanto -- there probably wouldn’t have been a harvest to celebrate that fall.

[Delegate 5 raises hand, comes to microphone]

BIRCH: The chair recognizes the delegate from Polk City.

DELEGATE 5: Mx. Chair, I move to include what the Puritans wore.

BIRCH: Which was?

DELEGATE 5: Beats me. I was wanting to find out!

BIRCH: Fact checker?

ELLIOTT: The Puritan colonists did not wear black, large hats with buckles on them, nor buckled shoes. The 19th-century artists who painted them that way did so because they associated black clothing and buckles with being old-fashioned. Actually, their attire was bright and cheerful.

DELEGATE 5: I move to include that information in the record.

BIRCH: All in favor, raise your Order of Service.... The information is incorporated. Pick up from there.

[Delegate 5 sits]

MEREDITH: The harvest celebration of 1621 was not a solemn religious observance. It was a three-day festival that included drinking, gambling, athletic games, and even shooting practice with English muskets -- a not-so-subtle way to warn the indigenous peoples that these colonists could shoot them. The Wampanoag chief, Massasoit, and 90 warriors made their way to the settlement in response to the sounds of the gunfire. They thought the colonists were under attack, so they came prepared for battle to help defend the colonists. The Wampanoag were probably not invited, and the settlers were probably rather nervous having them around.

[Delegate 6 raises hand, comes to microphone]

BIRCH: The chair recognizes the delegate from West Des Moines.

DELEGATE 6: We’ve heard what the Puritans wore. What did the Wampanoag wear?

MEREDITH: They were not wearing what is often pictured: woven blankets on their shoulders and large, feathered headdresses. They wore breechcloth with leggings -- and perhaps one or two feathers in their hair in the back.

DELEGATE 6: How long did the Wampanoag stay?

MEREDITH: The Wampanoag stayed for three days, during the course of which they contributed a large portion – perhaps most – of the food.

DELEGATE 6: Was the 1621 harvest celebration in November?

MEREDITH: November would have been much too late. It was some time between late September and the middle of October.

DELEGATE 6: So the first Thanksgiving, then, was in September or October?

MEREDITH: The colonists celebrating in 1621 did not call their event "Thanksgiving." For them, “thanksgiving” was a day of fasting – and this was a feast -- the opposite of a Puritan thanksgiving observance. Calling any event involving white settlers in North America "the first Thanksgiving" overlooks the fact that, for thousands of years before Europeans arrived, Indigenous people throughout Turtle Island (North America) celebrated seasons of Thanksgiving. "Thanksgiving" is a very ancient concept to the first nations of this continent. The 1621 celebration was a one-off that was not repeated -- and, in any case, wasn't thought of as a "Thanksgiving."

DELEGATE 6: Last question: What is the source of the misinformation we have about the 1621 harvest celebration?

[Delebate 6 sits]

MEREDITH: Uh . . . Fact checker?

ELLIOTT: Everything we know about that 1621 feast came from a description in one letter by colonist Edward Winslow. That letter was lost for 200 years. After it was rediscovered, a Boston publisher, Alexander Young, in 1841 printed up the brief account of the feast. Young dubbed the episode “The First Thanksgiving.” White Americans, craving a romanticized story of their past, latched on to it. And that’s the story of how we got the story.

BIRCH: Thank you. Story-teller, please resume.

MEREDITH: The first European-recognized Thanksgiving came in 1637, when Governor Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony proclaimed a Day of Thanksgiving. The proclamation focused on giving thanks for the return of the colony's men who had traveled to what is now Mystic, Connecticut where they had gone to join in battle. The thanks that was foremost in Winthrop’s proclamation was thanks for their “great victory”. The roots of the American Thanksgiving holiday are a celebration of a massacre of hundreds of Native people.

It grew into a general celebration of genocide. For example, a Proclamation of Thanksgiving in 1676 thanks god that the "heathen natives" had been almost entirely wiped out in Massachusetts and nearby. Thanksgiving proclamations a century later continue to be connected with war. In the midst of the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress issued Thanksgiving Proclamations each year from 1777 to 1784. Thus was the way paved for Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of the Civil War, to make Thanksgiving a US National Holiday. Lincoln set the US National Holiday of Thanksgiving as the last Thursday of November.

[Delegate 7 raises hand, comes to microphone]

BIRCH: The chair recognizes the delegate from Johnston.

DELEGATE 7: Mx. Chair, I move to include how the holiday moved from the last Thursday of November to the fourth Thursday of November.

BIRCH: Would the Assembly like to hear how the holiday moved from the last Thursday to the fourth Thursday? All in favor, raise your Order of Service.... Opposed?... The motion carries, so tell us.

[Delegate 7 sits]

MEREDITH: Five times out of seven, the fourth Thursday in November IS the last Thursday. The other two times – like this year – November has five Thursdays, and then the fourth one is not the last one. The holiday moved from the last Thursday to the fourth Thursday in 1941. Franklin Roosevelt made the change because November 1941 had five Thursdays, and by moving the holiday up a week he gave merchants a longer Christmas shopping season every year with five Thursdays in November.

[Delegate 8 raises hand, comes to microphone]

BIRCH: The Chair recognizes the delegate from Waterbury.

DELEGATE 8: Mx. Chair, I move the following resolution. Resolved: That those present at this worship service of First Unitarian Church of Des Moines give thanks for all the good in our lives and all the blessings we enjoy; that we remember also the pain and loss of the Indigenous people; and that our list of gratitudes include thanks that we have the capacity to face the truths of the past, to learn from them to love others better, and love the rich diversity of humanity and of life.

[Delegate 8 hands the motion up to Birch, then sits]

BIRCH: The motion is: [Birch repeats the motion.]

Resolutions require a second. Is there a second? [Waits for a second] All in favor of the motion raise your Order of Service.... Opposed?... The motion carries. Seeing no one else at the microphone -- and there being no further business -- this story-telling session stands adjourned until it’s time to review our Christmas Story. [Gavels]


Sometimes you feel happy. Sometimes you feel sad. Those are opposite feelings, and life brings them both, though usually not at the same time. Usually being happy means not beings sad, and being sad means not being happy.

How about these two: being grateful and remembering suffering? These are not even opposites at all. They are the natural extensions of each other.

There is much to be grateful for. Air! Take a breath, and be thankful for air! Thank you air. And we have trees and sunshine to be grateful for – the beauty of this world. We have cardinals and nuthatches and chipmunks. Thank you, trees! Thank you, sunshine! Thank you, cardinals and nuthatches and chipmunks!

Gratitude chases out loneliness. You can’t be lonely when you’re feeling thankful – because as soon as you say, “thank you,” you have company, companions, friends. The air, trees, sunshine, birdies and wee beasties: your company.

Compassion also chases out loneliness. Caring about other people, caring about whether they suffer are treated unfairly, also chases out loneliness. Compassion brings other people into our lives, even if only in our imagination. We have company. Thankfulness recognizes the companionship that is all around us.

Compassion reaches out to extend our companionship outward. For as the world is our good company, it makes us want to be good company for the world. So gratitude and compassion – thankfulness and remembering suffering and unfairness – are not opposites. They naturally go together, for they are both about: having company in our life.

We are not alone. We have the companionship of everything that we are grateful for and everything we have compassion for.

When I was a kid, the extended family and always a few unrelated guests gatherered around the table for Thanksgiving dinner each year. My Mom found a recipe for oyster stew one year early on, and liked it so much she made it every year thereafter, so, I know it’s weird, but in my mind, Thanksgiving is associated with oyster stew. Thank you, Oysters. Thank you, Mom.

And we’d go around the table and talk about what we were thankful for. I don’t remember if it ever came up at the Thanksgiving tables where I was, but it seemed a common thing around Thanksgiving to talk about being grateful for how well we’re doing when others are doing so much worse. That seems weird to me. I suppose the point is to remind us not to take our blessings for granted, and that’s a good point, but the even better point is to be reminded that none of us are free until all of us are free. As long as there are others doing worse, then we’re doing worse. As long as any being isn’t treated fairly, none of us has the blessing of living in a world where everyone is treated fairly.

We have the great good fortune to be able to care. The greatest blessing is to have the capacity for compassion. As Isabell Call said in the opening reading:
“We celebrate Thanksgiving because gratitude is essential to human life. But grief is essential for healing our history of violence. It's really hard to be thankful and sorrowful at the same time. But this is life: sometimes, joy and sorrow come together.”
Actually, I would say, if you’re paying attention, joy and sorrow always come together. When we seem to be having only joy, or only sorrow, it’s because we’re not paying attention to the other. Noticed or not, grounds for each is always right where we are standing.

Joy and sorrow manifest as gratitude and compassion. Gratitude and compassion are dishes best served together. May you find them both amply supplied at your Thanksgiving table.

No comments:

Post a Comment