“All earlier pluralist societies destroyed themselves because no one took care of the common good. They abounded in communities but could not sustain community, let alone create it.”
--Peter Drucker (Austrian born immigrant to the United States)
One of the most cherished of traditions in American education is the presentation of a pleasant reconstruction of the “First Thanksgiving” – a celebration at Plymouth, Massachusetts supposed to have taken place in 1621, prompted by a good harvest in the aftermath of the 1620-21 Winter during which somewhere on the order of 50% of the immigrant population of Puritans had died of cold and malnutrition. The good harvest is attributed (particularly in stories told to elementary school children) to the good relationship between the Puritans and the local aboriginal communities, the Wampanoag in particular, with local agricultural technology seemingly superior in every way to the inferior European understanding of how to scratch out subsistence from the American wilderness.
There are a few things glaringly wrong with the way the story is typically presented, of course. For one thing, colonizers in Virginia several decades earlier, though unsuccessful in establishing a permanent community, had made a “Day of Thanksgiving” a part of their very charter. The celebration of harvest festivals, in fact, is fairly universal, being a part of virtually every culture ever studied. So what was being done at Plymouth was not really original.
Moreover, the particular celebrations in Massachusetts, though certainly inspired by thanks for survival, and aided strongly by the assistance of the locals, serve only to put in bas relief the cultural duplicity that has been part of the American character since the founding of our country.
The Puritan Pilgrims, you see, were not inventing a new holiday. They were mimicking one – having abandoned Great Britain in search of a place in which they could live according to the strictures of their own rigid and exclusive religious views (sound familiar? Sort of like Sharia Law, perhaps?), the Puritans did not immediately set out for “The New World” – no, first they made a stopover in Leiden, in what is today the Netherlands.
And while in Leiden, they were on hand for the first several decades of what is a profoundly Dutch holiday. Known as 3 Oktober Feest or simply 3 Oktober, this Leiden festival celebrates the anniversary of the 1573-1574 Siege of Leiden during the Eighty Years War, when the Spanish attempted to capture the city; conditions were so bad at the height of the siege that thousands of citizens starved; when William of Orange entered the city on October 3rd, 1574, he fed the people of the town haring en wittebrood (herring and white bread sandwiches). Today, these sandwiches are handed out for free at De Waag (the weigh house); lots of beer is obviously also available, along with pretty much every festival attraction you can think of. Think "Oktoberfest" except with an actual excuse. Plus herring.
The Pilgrims placed their own stamp on this tradition, not being tied for any particular reason to the herring that saved the Dutch, but being immensely grateful for the venison, turkey, maize, turnips, squash, beans, fish, berries and what-not afforded by their agriculturally superior hosts (and we use that term loosely, given the land-grab they would make over the next few decades), and created the trappings we in this country now associate with “Thanksgiving” – though the advent of tofurkey would have to wait a few centuries, and the vast improvement of pecan pie over pumpkin pie would, sadly, have to wait for Mrs. Myrtle Maintenance to come along, but we digress.
In point of fact, the closest direct descendants (both genetically and culturally) of those earliest Puritan residents of Massachusetts are not, strictly speaking, American. They are, in direct contradiction of the conceit American patriots like to cling to regarding the whole story, the Tory sympathizers who in the wake of the American revolution had fled to Canada, where they brought the Americanized version of the holiday with them, and superimposed it upon Canada’s own historical tradition of Thanksgiving.
Most students in the U.S., if they hear at all that Canada has a “Thanksgiving Day” on the first Monday of October every year, assume it is in mimicry of the American version of the holiday, and that it is in October because it is just too cold after that to celebrate a harvest festival.
The reality, though, is that the Canadian holiday came first.
In 1578, the third voyage of Martin Frobisher from England in search of the Northwest Passage set out with the
Not to be outdone by the English Canadians, French settlers who arrived with Samuel de Champlain, from at least as early as 1604, also held huge feasts of thanksgiving on a more or less annual basis.
And, much as in the U.S., Canada’s thanksgiving festivities were held on a wide array of dates, sometimes in April, sometimes in June, sometimes in October, sometimes in November – ultimately settling on the current date (more or less – November and October have flip-flopped a couple of times) since the mid-19th Century. In the U.S., Abraham Lincoln had affixed an official Thanksgiving Day in November, but the Confederacy (really, is there anything those people didn’t do wrong?!) refused to take part, so it was not until during Reconstruction in the 1870s that we finally had a national Thanksgiving Day. And it was not until Franklin Roosevelt signed a joint resolution of Congress on December 26, 1941, that the current affixation of Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November became official.
The one thing all this history makes abundantly clear is that Thanksgiving, so clearly and tautologically about being grateful has also been multicultural. But it has also been beset by racism, nativism, ignorance, and fear.
Yes, in 1621, the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock were saved by Squanto and Chief Massasoit, but the natives soon learned to hate the names of bloodthirsty men like Myles Standish, and betrayal, murder and deceit became the norm of relations between Europeans and Native Americans for the next several centuries. And even the cultural heritage of fellow European contributors to the Puritans welfare were not merely whitewashed, but outright scrubbed from the record.
Moreover, we glean from history only that the Puritans “sought to worship in their own way” and yet, in modern America, we hear numerous cries from populist politicians decrying the incursion of alien cultures, most notably in calls to prevent the inclusion of Islam in codified American law – the so called “Sharia Law” debates, which, for those who actually look for any factual basis, consist of a whole lot of nothing – there is nothing there to fear, other than the mere fact of the presence of people whose culture is not the same as the one in which the fearful were raised. The idea that American democracy can be swept away by immigrants holds about as much weight as fears of children that they will be pulled down the bathtub drain, or that the boogeyman will get them in the middle of the night. There are plenty of anecdotal stories, but the problem is, none of them are real.
This is the month in which a tremendous amount of the trappings of American culture are on display – and yet the spirit in which those superficial elements are supposed to have been codified is on the verge of receiving a black eye. Debate is currently raging over whether or not President Barack Obama can or cannot, should or should not, show leniency in issuing an executive order whose practical effect would be a dramatic reduction in the deportation of immigrants to this country who have arrived without documentation.
Great timing. We are about to celebrate a holiday supposedly founded by people who, completely without any legal documentation or say-so from the local government, set up their little haven for illegal immigrants in the illegal immigrant town they called Plymouth.
We’re going to celebrate Thanksgiving Day this year, and we urge everyone else to do the same… but while being grateful for the blessings in our own lives, we are not going to begrudge anyone else seeking to be blessed, too. So to those who oppose immigration, our message is really fairly simple: grow up. You are violating your own foundational mythology – attempting to beexclusively American is the surest way to be unAmerican.
We liken the attempt to co-opt the purity and innocence of the foundational myths surrounding American culture by those who would concomitantly seek to limit the benefits accrued by those previous forays into the world of pluralism and multicultural community to the behavior of fire ants in the presence of a carefully tended crop of sugar beets, or maybe maize, or some other sweet fruit or veggie. Yes, the ants certainly display all the characteristics of a species on whom Darwinian Natural Selection has shone the most favorable of lights… but when they ravage the crop (as they surely will), there are only a limited number of possible outcomes – either the farmer liquidates the field in a fury of pesticidal apocalypse, or he plants something else which the ants can’t live off of (say, tobacco), or he gives up, moves away, and plants nothing. In none of those scenarios do the ants thrive. The farmer doesn’t fare so well, either.
And while we tend to think of ants as “alien” or “invaders”… and even accuse fire ants of being foreign… the reality is, there are four separate solenopsis invictus species, and two of them have been in the Continental U.S. longer even than the aboriginal “native Americans” – the farmer is the new guy on the block, not the ants. In this story, we’re the bugs, not the humans.
Honeybees, in contrast, live alongside the farmer, pollinate her crops, and if she is the sort who is careful and thoughtful in her interactions, can even get the bees to give her some of their honey. Too ham-fisted an analogy for you? Think of it this way – when we work alongside immigrants, we can accrue all sorts of economic benefits. Skilled labor or not, there is something they can provide (whether medical-degree carrying new doctors, or totally unskilled grapefruit pickers, and all skills and life experiences in between) which we would not have otherwise had. Either we accept them and live in harmony with them… or life goes sour for all of us. It’s not either or – it’s not “us or them” – it’s how will we all live?
Multiculturalism sometimes doesn’t work, as when we try to act more like the ants, but sometimes it does. And when it does, life is sweeter for everyone. Let’s be more like bees, and have a happy Thanksgiving.