The battle for the soul of America rages on, now focusing on Thanksgiving. On the one hand are those who offer the image of peace and harmony between Europeans and Indigenous people, on the other those who remind us of the savagery of the Europeans as they sought to exterminate the inhabitants of the land. Which is it? As I read the history, the following picture emerges. I am certainly not a historian of the time, and I welcome correction.

In 1620, about 100 political/religious refugees disembarked from the Mayflower, set foot on solid ground, and created Plymouth MA. These so-called Pilgrims, convinced that the Church of England was insufficiently pure, had formed their own churches in England, thereby insulting the king who was titular head of the Church, who in turn put a price on their head. Fleeing first to The Netherlands, they ultimately sought refuge in America. Totally unprepared for their first winter, only 53 hearty souls survived into the second year. Squanto, a Patuxet who had been sold into slavery by the English in 1614 and then released and sent back to America, taught the Pilgrims how to survive in the new land, and also brokered peace between them and the natives. After that first devastating year, they harvested a bounty that was shared with 90 men of the Wampanoag tribe who supplied the venison. No doubt the white migrant refugees were fearful, outnumbered as they were, but they also had an attitude of gratitude, and that image of peace and gratefulness forms the heart of our national Thanksgiving mythology.

As word of the new world reached England, many who also believed that the Church needed purification but who did not separate themselves from the Church, arrived in America with the purpose of creating the perfect society, as envisioned by them. These Puritans wanted the land without the Native Peoples, and so continued the process of “heathen” extermination begun by Columbus. Wave after wave of Puritan Englishmen killed, enslaved, and infected the native Americans. The welcomed and welcoming Pilgrims were replaced by genocidal Puritans, certain they were the elect of god and that the savage heathen were not part of god’s plan.

The history of Thanksgiving does not end there however. Much later Washington, at the behest of Congress, proclaimed a singular day of thanksgiving, but it was Lincoln who, in the heat of war, called upon the whole country to remember the Creator in a time of Thanksgiving, a national holiday to be celebrated the last Thursday in November. The tradition, thus begun in a moment of horror, as brother killed brother, was not changed until 1939. That year the holiday fell on Nov 30, and retailers believed that the population spent whatever money they had during the holiday season between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. And so, in the interest of the national economy, and also their own profit, no doubt, they convinced FDR to move the date for Thanksgiving ahead a week, thereby adding a week to the holidays. The change was unpopular and soon reversed.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving today there is much to remember and ponder. The impact of financial interests and power on the manner in which the soul of our nation is shaped. The official establishment of the day in the midst of a war fought on the issue of racist slavery. Pilgrims and Puritans, Plymouth Colony and Massachusetts Bay. These three determine the soul of our nation today. The rich and powerful determine more than the length of our holiday season. Racism continues to rip our nation apart. And the self-righteous blindness of the puritanical oppression of others lurks as the dark center of our cultural disease. The togetherness of Wampanoag and Pilgrim, however tenuous, seems lost in the controversies of the moment, although it need not be. The power of a myth is the power to renew and recreate. Thanksgiving has such power.

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