Note: Don’t ask me why I should care so much, but in case you’re wondering, work on the next “internet video lecture” is proceeding apace. Lots of material to cover with this one, so set your expectations for January. That’s it. That’s all you get for a while. Stop pestering me. – J.O.F.
Now, I know all you youngsters love your “chai tea” and your “avocado toast” and whatever else these days, and as such, are probably none too pleased about the fast approach of Thanksgiving – at which time you will be compelled to eat wholesome American food (for once) and speak to concerned elderly relatives (like me) about why you are neither married nor have children.
Truly, how awful. I feel so sorry for you.
But you know who didn’t have the option of shirking their duties in life? The Pilgrims. And do you know who had it worse even than them? The Indians. And do you know what these goddamn HEROES did when they got together way back in 1621? They created the greatest holiday EVER. PERIOD.
Let me tell you how it happened.
First, imagine a strange disease emerged in your midst from a distant land, against which the population possessed no immunity and for which there was no cure. Alright? Can you do that for me? But unlike the outbreak of a certain mild cold virus (that shall remain nameless) this pandemic meant business. Actually, it was more like five pandemics rolled into one: smallpox, influenza, pneumonia, cholera, typhus… you get the idea... which began ravaging the Americas upon the arrival of the first Spaniards in the early 1500s.
Now, imagine how deranged your world would become when as many as 9 out of 10 people dropped like flies all around you, snuffing out whole families, shattering whole villages, and wiping entire generations off the face of the earth – until you were the only one left, the last of your kind, doomed to wander confused and lonely through the ruins of your former life.
If you can imagine all that, you would know a little of what it was like to be the last of the Patuxet tribe, an ultimate survivor by the name of Tisquantum, who has gone down in history as Squanto.
Let me tell you about Squanto.
This goddamn legend had an iron will, I’ll tell you what. Utterly fearless. Balls like Cape Cod boulders. One day, he was just walking along the beach when an English ship appeared out of nowhere and kidnapped him. The ship’s captain was named Thomas Hunt, and he was, according to fellow sea captain John Smith: “a realle fuckken pricke whost villaine knowst no boundarie.” And who am I to contradict the great John Smith?
Anyway, Hunt stole Squanto and a number of other Indians to Spain where he sold them into slavery. Yet Squanto quickly escaped and made his way to England, where he not only taught himself English but was also (apparently) learning the shipbuilding trade for several years. That’s a little as if you or I were abducted by aliens, learned their language, escaped to a different planet, and several years later were repairing interstellar warp drives (or whatever). These are historical facts.
By 1619, Squanto hopped a ship back to America and was up in Newfoundland helping another Englishman named Thomas Dermer establish a colony. They weren’t having much luck, so Squanto suggested they try his old haunts of Massachusetts Bay instead. There, Squanto found, to his dismay, that his entire village had been wiped out by disease. Everyone he had ever known was gone.
Not sure what to do, Squanto made the long journey to Chief Massasoit, great sachem of the Wampanoag Confederacy, one of the two main powers in the region. Massasoit welcomed Squanto, but unfortunately for Dermer, relations between the various Indians and the English weren't too rosy at that time - which might have had something to do with all those kidnappings. Long story short, when Squanto returned he found Dermer inflicted by “betwixt foure and twentee mortale blowes to the cheste, necke, and scrotume…”
Dermer eventually died in Virginia, while Squanto disappeared from history for a while, presumably to live with Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag. And we might never have heard of Squanto’s incredible story except for another series of events that were transpiring back in England…
You see, there was once this thing called the Church of England – and maybe it still exists, who can say? – but back then it was kind of a big deal. It all got started when King Henry the VIII wanted to swap wives, the pope told him no dice, and King Henry told the pope to go fuck himself. Then he divorced his first wife, married his second, divorced her, killed her, married his third wife (who died in childbirth), married his fourth (annulled on account of “ugliness in the face”), married again, divorced again, killed again, married one last time, and then died himself. These are historical facts.
Anyway, you’d think a church that began in such a fashion would be a bit more tolerant about things like skipping services – but oh no, quite the contrary. It was illegal to miss Sunday service, even if the reason was because you were holding your own Sunday services that were basically the same, except twice as long with no music (and no booze).
These were your Puritans. Now, make no mistake, they were crazy. Honest, hard-working, and all the rest. But also crazy. Nobody in England knew quite what do to do with them. The first solution was a kind of self-imposed exile in Holland, but after a few years someone suggested the New World, and this seemed to work out for everybody.
At the time, England wasn’t exactly having an easy time finding people to populate its recently claimed territories on the North American seaboard, and sending in those wacky Puritans seemed a whole lot like killing two birds with one stone. Or in the words of King James: “Let thowse God-dammne pilgrimes reppose in Terra Novum so longe as theye defende the possessiones of the Crowne fromm thowse God-dammne Frenche asse-hollowes."
Thus, a deal was struck. William Bradford, an early leader of the Pilgrims, hired an English soldier named Myles Standish to accompany them and booked passage on a tiny rickety ship named the Speedwell. However, just as they were leaving, the ship sprung a leak and they were forced to turn back. Undaunted, Bradford booked a second (even tinier and ricketier) ship called the Mayflower, and this time, the Pilgrims – all 100 of them – made landfall in what is now Massachusetts Bay.
The place of their landing has been remembered ever since as Plymouth Rock – which still exists by the way, and is the kind of thing Gladys would take a million pictures of if I hadn’t “accidentally” broken her camera on our last trip (but that's just between you and me).
Anyway, the early Pilgrim colony did not go well. First of all, it was a total sausage fest, with only one woman for every three men, which couldn’t have done much to promote basic hygiene. Second of all, they landed in the middle of December, which as anyone familiar with the climate of New England will tell you, is fucking brutal. By the end of the first winter, half of the 100 original colonists had died.
Things improved somewhat in the Spring. First contact was made when another local legend, an Abenaki chief named Samoset, walked right into the Pilgrims’ encampment and announced in broken English, “Welcome Englishmen!” It was from Samoset that the Pilgrims learned about the mighty Chief Massasoit to the south and also the curious case of Squanto.
Starving and desperate, the Pilgrims asked Samoset to arrange a meeting, which he did. Now, this was an extraordinary risk. As you recall, the Indians were beginning to turn hostile on the English, and Chief Massasoit himself had grave doubts. However, upon learning the Pilgrims had brought women and children, he decided to risk it. As it turned out, his Wampanoag confederacy had been having their own problems with the goddamn Narragansetts, and an alliance with these unpredictable pale-faced strangers might just turn the tide. So, he dispatched Squanto and some of his warriors to meet with the Pilgrims.
Luckily, the Pilgrims were a diplomatic bunch – I mean, I suppose you’d have to be, being a persecuted religious sect and all. They exchanged gifts with the Wampanoag delegation and pledged peaceful conduct, which so impressed Chief Massasoit, that he himself came by and offered a formal alliance.
This proved their salvation. Squanto stayed on with the Pilgrims and taught them how to make a living out of the harsh New England wilderness, without which the Pilgrims would almost certainly have perished. He and Bradford eventually became close pals, and it is through Bradford (later the governor of Plymouth Colony) that we know as much about the life of Squanto as we do.
In October or November 1621, to commemorate their first harvest in America, the Pilgrims decided to throw a celebratory feast. Everyone was invited: Massasoit, Squanto, Samoset (who unfortunately had a prior engagement), and ninety other Wampanoags – basically everybody except the “verrie treacheroise Frenche” and the hated Narragansetts, of whom “the greate kinge Massassoite proclaimst do sucke foule cockes all daye longe”.
And this was, as you might have guessed, the very first Thanksgiving.
And what was for supper? Well, it hasn’t changed much these past four hundred years. Wild turkey, corn, bread, squash – probably no mashed potatoes and gravy, but the fundamentals were all there. We're all just lucky Glady's wasn't around, else she'd force everyone to try her disgusting jello mold and probably sink the whole damn truce. I keep telling her nobody eats the stuff, but what does she do year after year? Jello mold! For Christ sakes, old girl, get your head out of your ass...
But anyway, I'm rambling. And we have an important question left to answer. The First Thanksgiving – Good Thing, Bad Thing?
Well, how do I put this? Given what the Pilgrims and the Indians had been through, I can only imagine their famous meal was something like a piece of heaven come down to earth. After enduring plague, persecution, famine, war – those omnipresent evils of the past – somehow, for one day at least, these two peoples from two different worlds carved out a narrow sliver of peace and thanksgiving for themselves, which we remember and do likewise to this very day.
And across the travail of centuries, through good times and bad, every November Americans gather and feast with one another, no matter their religion or their color, no matter if rich or poor, if recent arrivals or from old established families. More so than any other, this is our holiday – the holiday of a new people in a new world... a people who once dreamed, and still do (in our better moments), of building That Shining City on a Hill...
Of course, the goddamn Canucks tried to steal the fucking thing and call it their own, but we all know where the first Thanksgiving came from, don't we? And by the way, Canada, if you are going to bogart our beloved holidays, you can at least get the goddamn date right. The second Monday of October? Are you fucking retarded? Jesus Christ, I'll tell you something you can be thankful for! It's that we even let you have your own stupid-ass country...
But aside from that, almost nothing, not global despair, nor supply shortages, nor moronic presidents, nor mysterious illnesses (of unknown origin) can spoil the pure unadulterated joy that is Thanksgiving. At times, I think, the last best proof that God exists.
So, ponder on that as you celebrate this four-hundred year anniversary of the First Thanksgiving. Be thankful for all who have come before you and all they have done to make this great nation what it is. And be prepared also to do your part, so that generations yet-unborn will come to know and bask in the glory that is Thanksgiving, and perhaps think well of you... after you are gone...
Happy Thanksgiving, class.
Do your reading,