A Welcoming Thanksgiving

Adapted 11/25/2015 from the original post.
As we gather with our families and/or friends this Thanksgiving, it is important to remember the history of the holiday and the lessons it has for us today. After all, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Very little is known about the details of the first Thanksgiving, but the Plymouth colonists, or pilgrims, would have died in 1621 without the aid of the Wampanoag Indians. The pilgrims were refugees- they were fleeing religious persecution in England, just as many immigrants to the United States today are fleeing death and persecution in their home countries. Refugees come to our shores from all corners of the globe- from Central America to Syria- escaping genocide, slavery, rape, murder, and torture. Just as the Wampanoag Indians helped the colonists in the winter of 1621, it is our civic responsibility, out of gratitude for all the privileges afforded us by living in the United States, to welcome those who are newly arrived in our country and understand the reasons they are fleeing.

The_First_Thanksgiving_cph.3g04961In September of 1620, the Mayflower ship left Plymouth, England with 102 passengers. It arrived in Cape Cod 66 days later, far north of their intended destination. One month later it crossed Massachusetts Bay, where the pilgrims began establishing a village at Plymouth. For that first winter, many of the colonists remained on board the ship, where they died of malnutrition and various diseases. Half of them did not live to see the next spring. In March, the remaining pilgrims finally moved ashore from the ship, and were paid a visit by an Abenaki Indian who spoke English. Several days later he returned with Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe who also spoke English and is credited with teaching the pilgrims how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish, and avoid poisonous plants. He also aided them in forming an alliance with the Wampanoag tribe, which sadly is one of the only examples of harmony between the colonists and Native Americans. In November of 1621, after the first successful autumn harvest, the pilgrims held a three-day feast of thanksgiving, as was common in Europe and many other cultures. Some of the Wampanoag tribe members, including the chief Massasoit, attended the feast. The little we know about the details of the feast are from these primary sources. It was celebrated on a state-by-state basis and not made an official holiday until 1863, when Abraham Lincoln declared it an official holiday during the height of the Civil War, at the urging of magazine editor and writer Sarah Josepha Hale.

The idea of the Thanksgiving holiday being a reminder to welcome newcomers to our country, just as the Wampanoag Indians welcomed the first British colonists, is not something new. In the November 20th, 1869 issue of Harper’s Weekly, the famous cartoonist Thomas Nast published a cartoon portraying Thanksgiving Dinner as a time to welcome people from all cultures and give everyone universal suffrage (the right to vote).

The cartoon had the specific goal of endorsing ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed that federal voting rights could not be denied on the basis of race. After about a year of delays, it finally became part of the Constitution in March of 1870. The cartoon features Uncle Sam carving the turkey on the right and Columbia seated on the left, with portraits of Ulysses S. Grant, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln on the wall, a table centerpiece commemorating universal suffrage, another painting with a welcome message behind Uncle Sam, and Lincoln’s plea of “with malice toward none and charity to all” inscribed under his name. Seated around the table and conversing with each other are men, women, and children of various cultures.

So this Thursday, as you are (hopefully) enjoying time with your family and friends, remember that Thanksgiving is a time to give welcome as well as give thanks. Just as the Wampanoag Indians rescued the Plymouth colonists, it is our responsibility to at least be sensitive to the dire situations from which many recent immigrants to the United States are escaping.

To learn more about why so many people are fleeing Middle Eastern and Central American countries, check out the Newsstand on the library’s eBranch page. Also check out this United Nations page about Syrian refugees’ stories and this New York Times article about Central American refugees. To learn more about the history of Thanksgiving, check out this History Channel article and this Smithsonian Institution Affiliate Program article.


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