Thanksgiving, or Thanksgiving Day, is a holiday celebrated in the United States on the fourth Thursday in November. The event that Americans commonly call the "First Thanksgiving" was celebrated by the Pilgrims after their first harvest in the New World in 1621.(1) One day that fall,
four settlers were sent to hunt for food for a harvest celebration. The Wampanoag heard gunshots and alerted their leader, Massasoit, who thought the English might be preparing for war. Massasoit visited the English settlement with 90 of his men to see if the war rumor was true.
Soon after their visit, the Native Americans realized that the English were only hunting for the harvest celebration. Massasoit sent some of his own men to hunt deer for the feast and for three days, the English and native men, women, and children ate together. In fact, they seem to have used the three days for feasting, playing games, and even drinking liquor.
I’d like your thoughts here, but personally, if these “big picture” accounts of the first Thanksgiving are accurate, then I can’t help but wonder what type of activities comprised the “smaller picture.”
This first Thanksgiving took place in Plymouth, Massachusetts, an area long fraught with war, hardship and mistrust between the Pilgrims and the Indians. And yet, despite these troubles, the Pilgrims decide to have a major blow-out or a successful harvest and, accordingly, send a few men into hostile territory to hunt food for the festivities. Quite quickly, they come upon several forms of meat: deer, wild boar, pheasant – who knows, maybe even a turkey – and start blasting away. Flush with game, the Pilgrims ride back to the settlement, eager for recognition from the women and the opportunity to “kick it olde school.”
Hearing the gun shots, however, Massasoit thinks the Pilgrims are preparing to launch a major attack against his tribe. Not unreasonable. So, the Chief and 90 warriors ride over to check it out. As they enter the Pilgrim settlement, Massasoit asks, “Those shots we heard. What’s up with that?” The Pilgrims, desperate for an answer that will keep their hair in place, reply, “We’re showing our gratitude and thanks for all the blessings we’ve been given this harvest season.
Actually, we’re thinking about having a three-day celebration and calling it ‘Thanksgiving’. And you’re welcome to join us.” Massasoit, pondering this for a moment, responds, “Sure. Whatever. Listen, how are you set for wampum?”
“Yeah. You know… Furs, cash, jewelry. Stuff we can either use or trade.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Chief, but we have nothing of value. We left the East Coast – in particular, northern New Jersey -- to find our own riches and treasures further west.”
“How’s that working out?”
“Not so good.”
At that, Massasoit sighs, turns back to his men, and says, “Whatever. All right, you warriors go hunt up some more food, grab the wives and kids and we’ll head back here for…” Turning back to the Pilgrims, he asks, “What did you call this deal again?”
“Thanksgiving. It will be the very first in America.”
“The very first ‘Thanksgiving.’ Got it.” Turning back to his men, he tells them,
“All right, we’ll meet back here in three, maybe four hours to check this out. If they’re telling the truth, could be fine. If not, it’s 91 to 53. So, c’mon. Go! Go! Go!”
And with that, the Wampanoag warriors ride off, and the Pilgrims begin a settlement-wide changing of underwear.
Eager to believe the Wampanoag are sincere, the Pilgrims begin building fires, preparing the meat, grinding the corn, decorating the grange hall, hiding the children and hitting the bottle. So that, by the time the Indians come riding back into the settlement, the Pilgrims are gracious, welcoming, cleaned up, hungry and shit-faced.
At first, things seem a bit awkward and tense, until the Pilgrims, noticing the Indians have not been timid with their own firewater, begin to relax and allow the joyous occasion to seek its own level. Snacks are set out, the tables are arranged, the children play together beautifully and everyone feels like they’re on some sort of potential holiday.
Massasoit, sensing something is missing, instructs several of his tribe members to set up their drums and get a beat going. Filled with this same spirit -- although hindered by a lesser sense of natural rhythm -- the Pilgrims bring out guitars, fiddles and squeeze boxes to join the Indians and form a band.
After a few hours, and several cases of “the good stuff,” everyone is singing, dancing, laughing, sharing stories of hardships and broken treaties, and declaring to one another, “You know what, we should think about doing this every year!” At that, they all admit to being exhausted, and decide to have the big dinner the next day. And so, the Indians pack up and head home for the night to rest for the busy day ahead.
The next morning, before riding back to the Pilgrim settlement, several of the braves ask Massasoit if they could meet with the Chiefs for a bit. Massasoit agrees and they all gather in the Community Center wigwam.
“All right,” he says to the braves, “What’s up?”
The designated spokesman for the braves responds, “Well, we’ve been thinking. Today is Saturday. The second day of this ‘Thanksgiving’ thing the Pilgrims have come up with.”
“And,” asks the Chief.
“Well, see, the thing is, we get Saturday and Sunday off anyway. So, actually, this really isn’t much of a vacation for us.”
“Go ahead,” prompts the Chief.
“So,” continues the brave, “if it looks like this ‘Thanksgiving’ deal starts to get traction, we’d – all us braves, that is – think you should move the first day to Thursday. That way, we can celebrate through Saturday and still have Sunday to relax and be with the family.”
Massasoit looks to the other Chiefs, who shrug as a group as if to signify, “Sure, why not?”
So, he responds to the braves, “Fine. We’ll give on moving Thanksgiving to Thursday, but in return, we’d like you braves to consider approving a universal health care plan. A plan where everyone is able to see a medicine man whenever they’re ill.”
At this, several of the other Chiefs look at each other, until one of them asks, “Who’s ‘We,’ Red Man?”
“And,” asks another Chief, “have you even visited with any of the medicine men about this? Last I heard they were already overworked, and not making anywhere near the wampum they used to.”
“That may be true,” states Massasoit, “but how do you turn away someone who’s sick, especially a papoose?”
“And by ‘anyone’,” asks one of the more moderate Chiefs, “You mean any member of our tribe?”
“Not necessarily,” says Massasoit. “I mean, suppose one of our new Pilgrim friends needs a medicine man? Are you going to say ’No’?”
“Are you serious?” ask the Chiefs incredulously, “They’re in this territory illegally. And you heard them say they don’t have any furs or wampum. Who’s supposed to pay for it?”
“We’ll get to that,” replies Massasoit, “Not to worry.”
Then one of the Chiefs asks, “Okay, here’s a question. Why wife has always gone to Dr. Saddle Block, an Apache medicine man. Will she still be able to see him, or will he be considered, ‘Out of Reservation’?”
“Good question,” responds Massasoit, “And the answer is ‘Yes.’ If you like your medicine man, you can keep your medicine man.”
The Chiefs and the braves all look skeptical, but right now it’s time to head back to the Pilgrims, so they decide to shelf the discussion for later. As the Indians arrive back at the settlement and everyone begins mingling, it’s obvious the same feeling of joy is in the air again today. Games such as, “Tomahawk the tail on the donkey,” and “Twister,” are played to the delight of all.
Finally, it’s time to sit down and begin dining. The Indians are used to more of a buffet arrangement, but the Pilgrims, being hosts for the event, opt for “family style.”
At first, conversations are a bit strained.
“Honey,” says one of the Pilgrim cooks to her husband, “It’s time to carve the meat. Would you please hand that big butcher knife to Many Scalps? He’s been asking what he can to help.”
“I’m sorry,” he responds. “What?”
“The big butcher knife. Please give it to Many Scalps. He assured me, ‘This is not his first raiding party.’ Isn’t that cute?”
“Oh, hey… Where’s your mother? Maybe she’d like to hand it to him.”
After a wonderful feast, in which all involved are awash with the spirit of friendship, the Pilgrim ladies bring out a delicious new dessert called “Pumpkin Smash.”
“Isn’t it incredible?” says one Pilgrim wife to her husband. “Mega Hooters showed me how to make it. You just roll a little flower, add sugar and beat the shit out of a pumpkin. Set over an open campfire ‘til the crust is golden brown and serve warm. I’ve gotta remember this recipe.”
At this point, all are ready for a nap and the anticipation of catching a “second wind,” when suddenly, one of the warriors pulls out a peace pipe and announces, “Hey, everybody! My cousin, Nickel Bag, just returned from Colorado with this amazing new ‘Peace Potion.’ Let’s all sit in a circle and smoke this Bad Boy.”
Within a matter of minutes, the true gift of human kindness seems to envelope both the settlers and the Indians. Any doubts and inhibitions are whisked away, replaced with strange, curious stirrings about the needs and desires of “these other people.” Floor-length Pilgrim dresses are lifted a bit allowing the ladies to “bust a few moves,” while the Pilgrim men unbutton their vests to reveal well-toned abs. The Indian women seductively loosen their decorative hides, as the Indian men play peek-a-boo with the “loin behind the cloth.” The scent of musk, patchouli oil and peyote is intoxicating.
Conversations wander into new territory.
“Sweetheart,” says one of the Pilgrim wives to her husband,” I’ll be back in a bit. Buffalo Pud wants to show me a new way to gather wood.”
“No problem, honey,” he replies, “You have fun. Princess Touchy-Feely ask me to help work the knot out of her thong!”
“Look, Darling, Chief Beaver Hound gave me all these beads.”
“Really? And what did you give him?”
“I’m sorry, dear. I didn’t hear you. I have a headache.”
“Sweetheart,” asks the Pilgrim man, “what’s that thing you’ve got in your hand?”
“Oh, this? It’s called a ‘Comanche Tickler.’”
“Well, where did you get it?”
“From Chief Velvet Touch. He’s starting a chain of adult trading posts all along the major trails heading west.”
“Oh, yeah? Well, what exactly, does it do?”
“Chases away evil spirits.”
“I didn’t know you had a problem with evil spirits.”
“I don’t anymore.”
By 2:00 that morning, with everyone barely able to function, it’s decided to shorten the celebration to just two days and call it a success. Within minutes, the Indians gather up their families, belongings and buffalo hides filled with left-overs, and begin their journey home. For all involved, it has been an experience that will remain with them for a lifetime.
And, so… Regardless of your beliefs and understanding of the real “First Thanksgiving,” please accept the following:
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day. One of our Nation’s most beloved and celebrated Holidays. A day when American’s pause from the activities and commitments of their daily lives to give thanks for the blessings and gifts they have received throughout the year. It is a time to be with family and friends to reflect on all that is important in life and love. To say “Thank you” for a bountiful harvest, for the ability to provide food and provisions to the less fortunate, for the opportunity to stand together as a People – each and every one of us -- and share our hopes for peace, kindness and prosperity, now and for many generations to come.
And that, my dear friend, is my prayer for you.
How about that?
1. Jump up ^ Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620–1647, pp. 85–92.