What is the truth about Thanksgiving and what is the myth?
Of course, there’s nothing more true than the truth, but the myth is also true, if you take the old and, well, true meaning of the word.
This parsing of language is appropriate as we celebrate the one national holiday that has nothing to do with war or soldiers — like the Glorious Fourth celebrating our independence won in blood from Britain, or Veterans Day. It’s also not about individuals, like the birthdays of Lincoln and Washington, or remembering Martin Luther King and Columbus. Or a day associated with religion, like Christmas.
This is where the power of myth surfaces. The stories handed down from generation to generation — whether facts have been lost, obscured or tempered by time — reinforce what families and nations believe about the best part of themselves. And that best part of America is being grateful for what we have, and sharing. This is the story every school child learns, passed down long ago about the Native Americans, who besides teaching the Pilgrims to catch eels, also taught them to grow corn, and both communities sat down in peace and broke bread together.
We’re taught that we’re free, and we’re all equal, and so have a duty to give thanks.
The myth did grow out of actual facts, but it’s fairly certain the Pilgrims of Massachusetts didn’t just up and decide to hold the first Thanksgiving in 1621 and invite the Native Americans to dinner to thank them for their help in keeping the colonists’ community alive. Early winter feasts giving thanks for bringing in a harvest that would guarantee survival and even comfort through the coldest months were common in Europe and colonial America long before the Plymouth colony.
There might have been a roasted wild turkey or two at the Pilgrims’ dinner, but it wouldn’t have been the centerpiece. Venison and those eels would have taken that mouthwatering pride of place, and pumpkin pie was probably not served. Cranberries would have been on the menu, but not as a relish.
What is certainly true about Thanksgiving is it’s a day every American knows is set aside to count blessings and remember an important element in the founding of our country.
People take what they will from the day. Arlo Guthrie hitched the holiday to the anti-war movement of the 1960s with “Alice’s Restaurant,” and Rush Limbaugh has his own tradition of retelling a story he dubs, “The Real Story of Thanksgiving,” something about the battle between communism and the free enterprise system.
But some facts: In 1863, Abraham Lincoln codified our national day of Thanksgiving to be celebrated annually on the final Thursday of November.
About a month after that proclamation, Lincoln spoke at the cemetery at Gettysburg, beginning his address by saying, that we were a new nation, “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
More than enough to be thankful for.