An estimated 10% of Americans can claim to be descendents of the first European settlers who sailed on the Mayflower and established a Puritan colony at Plymouth. Nathaniel’s Philbrick’s best-selling book, “Mayflower,” gives us a sense of what this extraordinary minority faced and contributed to modern day American identity.
This well-researched account demystifies the popular interpretation of the Thanksgiving holiday and gives rich detail on the complex political, religious and challenging environmental context in which this minority survived, against all odds. The idea that somehow the settlers found a large wooden table, a white table cloth, chairs and dressed in black hats and starched collars so they could share their food with the native peoples, is complete fiction. History was scrubbed clean, beyond all recognition when the national holiday was declared by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Lincoln, in the midst of the Civil War, felt we needed a “restorative myth of national origins – a cathartic celebration of nationhood that would have baffled and probably appalled the godly pilgrims.”
“With the Civil War a memory and the Indian wars of the Wild West drawing to a close, US citizens at the turn of the century could look with romantic nostalgia towards America’s native population. Instead of the rock and the compact, Thanksgiving and its reassuring images of Indian-English co-operation became the predominant myth of the Pilgrims. ... In the popular American imagination, the nations history began with the Pilgrims and then leapfrogged more than 150 years to Lexington and the Concord and the Revolution.”
Historians suggest the first Thanksgiving was probably in September or October of 1621, and an important marker in the horrendously difficult year of the first settlers. They had faced death on the ocean, disease and starvation. There were internal tensions and they were aliens in a strange land, dependent on the goodwill of its residents.
A year later, they would have experienced the rich palette of fall colors and would have harvested their first crop of corn, squash, beans, barley and peas. Fowl, ducks and wild turkeys were plentiful. The first Thanksgiving would have resembled a mixture of a medieval English harvest festival when villagers ate, drank and played games, and a native feast.
Massasoit and a hundred Pokanokets (more than twice the entire English population of Plymouth) arrived at the settlement and soon provided five freshly killed deer. Imagine a series of outdoor fires with deer and birds cooked over spits while potages stewed the freshly picked vegetables. They ate with their knives and fingers and would have slept in wigwams. Even though they differed in race, culture and religion, they had more in common with their new neighbors as they dealt with the common enemies of disease, war and crop failure.
A diary entry by Edward Winslow describes the feelings of the Pilgrims towards their new friends: “very trustworthy, quick of apprehension, ripe witted, just.”
This week, as an Irish gay exile, I will be celebrating my 30th Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S. I still remember my first Thanksgiving in the home of the Rev. Mary Mail’s grandparents in Anderson, Ind. I stopped off for a visit on my way to my new home in California. The family table was warm and hospitable – all that is good and wholesome about this great country. It was an idyllic “resting place” for me, still counting the cost of leaving behind all I knew and venturing into a scary future. My first American Thanksgiving introduced me to a new people who embraced the stranger and the “newly arrived.”
My partner and I will be welcoming relatives from Macedonia at our Thanksgiving table this year, who have lived here for over a year and are living “the American dream” with all its challenges and opportunities. They won two green cards in a government lottery program and decided to move here just over a year ago. They work hard and are settling in to their new country and as “strangers and exiles” ourselves, my partner and I remember our own journey and how we were welcomed by the host community once ourselves. We now have the opportunity to do that for others.
Many LGBT people are exiles from their families of birth, so Thanksgiving can be a difficult holiday to revisit. Many of us have created our “families of choice” or commit to serving the homeless community in LGBT centers and churches and temples all over the country. The celebration of community, survival and an appreciation of our blessings is part of the historic remembering of the first Thanksgiving.
This morning, I spoke with some of my friends in Washington, D.C., who will be welcoming Peter, our African LGBT human rights defender who was recently exiled from his home to begin a new life in the U.S. It will be his first Thanksgiving here, and hearts and hospitality are open and full of blessings for him. He too is creating a “family of choice” and joins millions of LGBT people, straight allies and families who understand the deeper meanings of this national holiday.
The first Thanksgiving story has many lessons for minority communities struggling to survive the harsh realities of “winters” where we think we may not make it. We are frequently dependent on others for a sense of identity, belonging and survival and holy texts command us to treat the alien - “the other” with the same respect that we once experienced. Exodus 22:21 demands:
"You must not mistreat or oppress foreigners in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.”
When we forget that, we get in trouble. How we struggle with the complex issues of immigration in this country, LGBT global oppression and how to somehow share the recent blessings of LGBT equality beyond the borders of this country? We sometimes forget our own histories while privilege and entitlement creeps up on us once we find ourselves at the tables of power and plenty. So we are invited to once again remember that we too share in the Thanksgiving story and if we can balance the historical reality with our present day experience, we are not only blest, but we can bless others. Happy Thanksgiving!
RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.