1st Thanksgiving celebration not remembered like it was; The Pilgrims had a big meal, but they didn’t eat like we do

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

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Our images of the Pilgrims are straight out of second grade: happy, placid people, sitting around a big table with peaceful Indians, eating turkey with cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.

It’s a caricature ready-made for 7-year-olds, and almost four centuries after the landing at Plymouth, it’s almost impossible to separate fact from fiction.

But what if the Pilgrims were here in the flesh? Imagine a lost scene from a science-fiction movie: What if the pilgrims were time-warped to the present day? What would they think of the country (and holiday) they played a part in founding?

First, they’d likely be surprised that the volume of religious debate in America has been turned down so low. We’ve got Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and every other faith from animism to zoroastrianism, but almost everyone manages to get along.

We might find that something to be thankful for, but the Pilgrims would probably think it’s a tragedy.

One of their favorite books – published in 1618 by their religious leader, William Brewster – was a theological critique of the first English Catholic translation of the Bible, written by Puritan Thomas Cartwright.

Its title: A Confutation of the Rhemists’ Translation, Glosses and Annotations on the New Testament, so far as They Contain Manifest Impieties, Heresies, Idolatries, Superstitions, Prophanesse, Treasons, Slanders, Absurdities, Falsehoods, and other Evills.

Hardly the words of someone eager for people of all faiths to get along.

For a window into the force of their faith, look no further than Cartwright’s book. Brewster, the printer, spent a full decade of his life – and lives were often short back then – setting the type for the 800-plus-page tome. Cartwright’s forcefully argued theology is crammed into every available square inch of paper, a dense sea of close to a million tiny words.

Just reading it would take a lifetime. Picture what Brewster did – setting all those words into type by hand, one letter at a time – and the devotion to faith is obvious.

The grade-school version of the Pilgrims’ story says they came to America fleeing religious oppression. And the English authorities had indeed chased them out of their homeland.

But from England, the Pilgrims went to Holland, where they enjoyed freedom to worship however they chose. They lived happily there for more than a decade. They left Holland in 1620 because they didn’t want to be in a pluralistic society where multiple religions were tolerated; they feared that their children might be swayed to other faiths.

Our time-traveling Pilgrims would probably be more than a bit angry that a little feast they had back in the 1620s had led to the creation of a national holiday.

One of the reasons the Pilgrims fled England was the Church of England’s insistence that everyone participate in the church’s holidays, which the Pilgrims considered an abomination. The pilgrims hated the idea of man-made celebrations, and didn’t even celebrate Christmas, Easter, or birthdays.

In his book, Cartwright attacks Catholics for “press[ing] observations of feasts of men’s devising, and to the honor of men.” A Pilgrim dropped in a modern-day America likely would be appalled at the annual rituals, even if they are more likely to involve turkey and stuffing than bread and wine.

What we now celebrate as Thanksgiving dates back to a three-day feast the Pilgrims had in 1621 after their first harvest. About 50 Pilgrims shared the meals with roughly 90 Native Americans. There wasn’t any religious component to the day, or even much of an actual thanksgiving; their faith demanded that the giving of thanks to God be an individual action, not a ceremony.

They did have a few wild turkeys, according to accounts from the time. But no pumpkin pie and no cranberry sauce. And, as far as we know, the Pilgrims didn’t play football.

The Pilgrims certainly weren’t planning on starting an annual tradition. There is no record of them ever having another such feast.

The idea of a Pilgrim Thanksgiving was ignored for two centuries, until writings describing the original feast were rediscovered in the 1840s. Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of what was then America’s most read magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book, began writing annual editorials calling for the creation of a national holiday. (It was her editorials that made turkey the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal.) President Abraham Lincoln answered her wishes in 1863, in the darkest days of the Civil War.

Finally, the Pilgrims would certainly be puzzled at how easy things are for Americans today. Life or death was for them often a daily debate, thanks to meager harvests and wretched winters. Fresh supplies were an ocean away. They were planting crops they had never seen. Their life required enormous reserves of resourcefulness.

They could have been back in England, where life was, if not luxurious, much easier. But by force of will, they clung to the edge of a strange continent.

A Pilgrim seeing the modern Thanksgiving spread probably would be stunned at the bounty, then amazed at learning much of it came from cans instead of the garden out back.

On this day of Thanksgiving, perhaps what we should be most thankful for is that we no longer have to live like the Pilgrims.