So, you all got the turkey ready to put in the oven? Bit of pumpkin pie for after? Well hang on a minute…. Step back from those mashed potatoes!!! Did you ever stop to think about the origins of Thanksgiving? Yeah yeah we all know about the Mayflower and the Natives etc etc…. is that right? No. Its not! Well, not really. So put down the cranberry sauce and pull up a seat, and lets delve into the real origins of why you get together to eat and fight and it all starts with a fat ginger king of England……
In the 16th century, in the heady days of the Reformation, there were a group of religious Protestants who felt after all the changes and the counter changes and so on that the world wasn’t doing enough. Basing their thoughts on the teachings of Calvin and Zwingli, they felt the reforms needed within the Church were not extending far enough. Some of them wanted to stick with what they had and work from the inside to make those changes. Others felt it needed a new slate to work on, and insisted a new Church was needed and a new beginning, away from what they felt was a lost cause.
These groups were later to be known as ‘Puritans’ (not a name they gave themselves!). But not, as you would think because they were the pure ones, no. They wanted to ‘purify’ the teachings of the bible. They felt everything they needed was inside the book and that this should be from where they took their doctrine. They didn’t need priests and statues and icons. They didn’t believe in the divinity of Kings. As Harry shuffled off, and first Edward, then Mary and finally Elizabeth took his place, tolerance was a word increasingly used, but not necessarily exercised. As Elizabeth reached her twilight years and James I geared up to polish the throne with his regal bottom, religious dissent was increasing amongst the Protestants.
By the 17th Century, many English Separatists had moved to the Netherlands, some of them being caught up in the earlier siege of Lieden in 1574. Following the siege, celebration feasts – giving thanks – were observed to mark the end of what was a very trying time, during which many people succumbed to death through starvation and disease which many of the English reformists would have been involved in or witnessed. As time passed, they became disheartened by what they felt were the loose morals of the Dutch movement. They weren’t against drinking, in moderation. And they positively embraced sex, within marriage. But they felt a line had to be drawn. And so many returned to England. It was only a temporary measure; however. Certain areas of the Church still fell outside of their beliefs. Christmas and Easter for example, which these Puritans felt were heathen practices. They chose to cease celebrating these religious days and replaced them with simple days of fasting in times of need, drought, disease, poor harvests, and days of giving thanks, when times were good. And so the idea of a Thanksgiving Day were born. But they were not set to a specific time. Many of them were given recognition around what was traditionally the harvest festival in country areas.
In 1620, it became apparent to the dissenters that their religious needs were not going to be met in England, and the persecution they had long endured continued. It was time to make a move. A ship, the Mayflower, was hired and fitted out for the journey. The destination, the now established colonies of Virginia in the New World. The Mayflower was one of 26 vessels in England with the same name at that time, and has often been mistaken for one that Queen Elizabeth had fitted out for service against the Armada some years earlier. However, our Mayflower was a Dutch style ‘Fluyt’ of about 180 tons laid in Harwich and owned by Christopher Jones. Fluyts were built of a special design to allow for more cargo space near the water line, with a narrower deck above. With taller masts than average, two or three depending on ship, and square rigging, they were pear shaped and allowed for faster speeds, making them ideal trade ships. They also required less crew. Usually around 80 feet in length, with an average tonnage of 2-300, they were not designed to be converted to war ships unlike many others of a similar class in the day, making them easier and cheaper to build. They could however be easily fitted with removable armaments.
And so it was in July 1620 that the Mayflower set off from Rotherhithe with around 65 passengers, and rounded the coast to Southampton to dock and await the arrival of the Speedwell from Leiden, with the rest of the pilgrim party. It arrived 7 days later, and the voyage began in the first week of August. No Admiralty records appear to exist for this epic journey of the Mayflower, in fact there is a gap in the records of around 8 years until 1624 when it is presumed the ship was broken up.
The two ships had only reached the coast of Cornwall when the somewhat unreliable Speedwell sprung a leak. Following repairs in Dartmouth, the little party made its way out into the sea, where only 200 miles away, the Speedwell sprung another leak. It has since been suggested that the Speedwell’s Master, Mr Reynolds was in fact somewhat petrified about the prospect of sailing off to a land where tales of starvation, native attacks and death were rife, and frankly off-putting, and so the “leaks” may well have had human assistance. Nevertheless, the decision was made to transfer the passengers and some of the crew to the Mayflower and the vessel would continue alone. You can almost see Reynolds unfurling the sails and grabbing a bucket to get his ship back to England as fast as possible. If go-faster stripes were a visible sign, the Speedwell would have been warp factor… eat your heart out Jean-Luc Picard!
Anyway to cut a long story short, severe delays caused by a stiff facing wind, lack of food, blah blah, couple of deaths on board, one of them a child. Eventually they sighted land, off Cape Cod, far north of their objective of Virginia. They tried to travel south but the winds held them back so after several days they returned to Cape Cod and weighed anchor on November 11th. After writing and signing the Plymouth Compact, their first set of governing rules, Jones picked a party of several crew and passengers and took the ship’s longboat for a look around, from what is now Provincetown Harbour. They were met with harsh weather, and were forced to spend the night on land in cold wet conditions before returning to the Mayflower. They were moderately successful however, in a scavenger hunt for food, stumbling across an abandoned Native village on what is now Corn Hill, where investigation of some man made mounds revealed burials of both people and corn. Obviously they left the people, but they took some of the corn.
Due to the harsh conditions, it was decided that they would remain on board for the winter. Half of the passengers and crew died, through starvation and disease. A child was stillborn. Another child was born alive, Oceanus, son of Elizabeth Hopkins, making him the first European child born in the New England area. Another child had been born at sea, Peregrine White. Four of the children on board were siblings, traveling without family as indentured servants to passengers. The oldest was eight years. All four had been taken away from their mother, when their father put them aside, claiming they were illegitimate, and fathered by his wife’s lover. She was unaware of what happened to them until they had been handed over and left England. She never saw them again. Three of the children died during that first winter.
In the spring, the survivors built huts on shore, and disembarked at the end of March. A few days later, the remaining crew and Captain Jones left for England. It has long been claimed that the pilgrims landed and stepped foot onto a large rock, now known as the “Plymouth rock”. Identified by the son of one of the first settlers in the area, who grew up to tales from the pilgrims themselves, he later identified the exact rock which was said to be around fifteen feet in length and three feet wide. The romantic version states that as they landed, each pilgrim stepped off onto this large boulder which sat at water level, and later the date 1620 was etched into the identified rock. The rock in question is now considerably smaller, and consists of several large chunks. The engraved piece has been repositioned approximately where it was alleged to have originally stood. In reality, it’s hardly likely that 102 starving weary travellers were forced to climb off a boat onto a chunk of granite in stormy weather, when there was a natural harbour nearby. As we have already seen, the majority didn’t disembark that November, and as they anchored off shore, it was more probable that they rowed the longboat up to the beach, when going on hunting parties and so on. But it’s a nice story, and let’s face it, even as a symbolic legend, it isn’t hurting anybody.
But finally, THAT feast! So the Plymouth Pilgrims in their little houses in their new colony that November invited the kind natives who had helped them out when they were starving, to a Thanksgiving feast sharing in their wonderful bounty. Okay, that bit isn’t really true. Sketchy documentation, in the form of anecdotal evidence in a fragment of diary highlights in the February of 1621, when the surviving passengers of the Mayflower were still holed up on board the ship, and the process of building initial shelters was being discussed, a second ship from Ireland arrived laden with much needed supplies. It transpired that one of the ladies on board the Mayflower was the daughter of a wealthy Irish businessman, and possibly as a result of lack of communication from his daughter, and because the Mayflower was seemingly missing, he had hired a ship, filled it with food and sent it to find them. It happened across them in Plymouth Harbour and everybody was saved.
Of course, when the situation picked up later in the year, after help from the local natives who showed them how to plant the right crops and so on, by which they achieved a great harvest that first year, the colony was growing nicely, and it was decided to hold a Thanksgiving celebration possibly in the November, to which the local tribe was invited. They of course brought a share of food. It wasn’t an annual event however, and didn’t become one until forty years later. Even so, it was still only in the New England colonies that the feast was observed.
In 1789, George Washington announced a national day of giving thanks on November 26th, but it was an isolated incident. It was only during the Civil War in 1863 that Abraham Lincoln issued an edict pronouncing there would be a Thanksgiving Day celebrated nationally every year. Even so, it didn’t take a hold until a few years later, after peace returned, and the date was changed. To the present however, the day remains one of dubious significance. For many Native Americans and their not so Native American supporters, the day is synonymous with the long-standing removal of rights from native populations. Their land, their customs, their lives. And the holiday is seen as a day of protest for some. Protesters have gathered for a number of years on Cole’s Hill overlooking the Plymouth Bay where the first Pilgrims settles, and the Mayflower II sits in the harbour, and protest the celebration, every Thanksgiving.
For the more “glass half-full” amongst you, it is a day to celebrate.To remember a time when things were hard and people pulled together and so on. And thats never a bad thing. In times such as these, every opportunity we have to give thanks for anything, i feel should be taken. Even if the original meaning is lost in time, its what you make of it in the present that matters.
And the President still pardons a turkey! Happy Thanksgiving America.