When was the First Thanksgiving?
There are numerous celebrations this year of the four hundredth anniversary of the “first Thanksgiving,” and many of them are thinly veiled substitutes for cancelled celebrations of the arrival of the Pilgrims in November 1620. But, leading up to the celebration of Thanksgiving next weekend (at least in Canada), I think it appropriate to look at what we can glean of that first event. This holiday has sparked so much controversy in recent years, that one has to think twice before even calling it a celebration. Political activists have made the approval or the rejection of the holiday a litmus test for acceptability. And I am well and truly tired of hearing what everyone “was taught in school” -- which, in almost every case, seems to be what the speaker wishes he or she had been taught in school, to fit in with either their current personal grievance or reverence. But what can we get from the sources themselves?
The first question, and the one most easily answered, is when the first Thanksgiving was. We know that it took place before the arrival of the Fortune (remember them? They have been on that ship for three months now, and they still have another month to go before they arrive in Plymouth) in the middle of November 1621. The harvest itself, which produced the bounty spoken of in yesterday’s post, would have started in mid to late September. In addition to this, the arrival of the Fortune almost doubled the population of the colony of New Plymouth, and everyone was promptly put on half rations, so the celebration, for such it was, must have taken place while they still had something to celebrate. The Canadian celebration of Thanksgiving as the second Monday in October, while it really has no explicit connection to Plymouth or the Pilgrims, may be fairly close to the timing of the 1621 event. The November date in the United States has more to do with Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation during the War Between the States, and the timing of the Christmas shopping season, than it does with any memory of the “First Thanksgiving.”