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The Mayflower and Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving actually had many origins but the Pilgrim celebration of thanksgiving for a good harvest and a year of survival is the one we all believe started it.

Watching an old movie, the “Mayflower”, this past week made me think about the origins of the Thanksgiving celebration that is occuring all over the United States this week. The movie seemed to have a lot of discrepancies from what I remember learning in grade school.  I wonder if the origins of the celebration is even taught any more.  Do students learn anymore about Squanto and Massasoit; is this not important anymore?  I don’t know the answer.

The origins of Thanksgiving seemed to start with the voyage of the Mayflower.  The people on the ship included 102 passengers and crew members. Of the passengers only about forty of them were  taking the trip to separate themselves from the Church of England.  They were called “separatists” but they called themselves “saints’.  We refer to them as “Pilgrims”.  They embarked on the Mayflower in hopes of leaving the worldly distractions and governmental influence they felt subjected to first in England and then in Holland. The remaining passengers were more secular colonists. (the “Saints” referred to these passengers as “Strangers”). The Mayflower was basically a cargo ship which embarked from Plymouth, England in 1620 along with a second ship, the Speedwell, to take the Separatists and the other colonists to the New World to an area granted to them by the Virginia Colony. The Speedwell took on water and its passengers were crowded onto the Mayflower for the voyage.

While they didn’t end up where they anticipated, they established a colony where they landed called the Plymouth Colony or Plantation.  Before embarking from the Mayflower, they drew up an agreement that they intended would govern their behavior after they landed and established a living situation.  It was called the Mayflower Compact.  Among other things, it called for laws that were "just and equal".

After the first winter when many of the passengers and crew died from disease and lack of basic essentials, the survivors were helped by the local native people.  Under Squanto, who inexplicably seemed to know English, they were taught how to hunt local animals, gather shellfish, and grow crops such as beans, corn and squash.

After a successful harvest year in 1621, a three-day thanksgiving festival was celebrated with both the Mayflower survivors and the native people. This ultimately became the story behind the current national Thanksgiving holiday.  In terms of current political discourse, in some respects it is about an immigrant story turned on its head.

Every year Thanksgiving reminds me of the stories I learned in grade school about settlers who came to this country and how they persevered with the help of those who were here before them.  I think there is something grand to understand in this however removed in time it is.

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