by David A. Wright
“I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country: he is a Bird of bad moral character: like those among Men who live by Sharping and Robbing, he is generally poor and very often lousy. The Turkey is a much more respectable Bird and withal a true original Native of North America.”
Thanksgiving Day is celebrated annually throughout the United States of America as a time to offer thanks and hold family gatherings with festive holiday meals. It is a time for turkeys, stuffing, Indian corn1 and pumpkin pie; a time for holiday parades and giant balloons. Thanksgiving is now celebrated in the USA on the 4th Thursday of November, which this year is 24th November 2005.
However, throughout history, mankind has celebrated a bountiful harvest with thanksgiving ceremonies and I hope (with our editor’s indulgence) to write more of those in another article so as not to make this one overlong. This time, I will confine our thoughts to an Englishman’s view of the US celebration and maybe an American correspondent will correct any false perceptions.
The first European settlers2 in the New World were known as the Pilgrims3 (or Pilgrim Fathers). The Pilgrims were fleeing religious persecution in their native England. In 1609, a group of them left England for Holland where they enjoyed more religious freedom. For some time, they lived and prospered there, but after a few years found that their children were speaking Dutch and had become attached to the Dutch way of life. This worried the Leiden4 Separatists, as these Pilgrims were then known. They considered the Dutch frivolous and their ideas a threat to their children’s education and morality. So they decided to leave Holland and travel to the New World. They bought a ship, the Speedwell, in Holland, and boarded it at Delftshaven, whence they sailed to Southampton in England.
Meanwhile, a similar group of Pilgrims in England were also preparing to sail to the New World in search of a better life and more freedom in another ship, the Mayflower5. Their trip was financed by a group of sympathetic English investors, the Merchant Adventurers6. It was agreed that the Pilgrims would be given passage and supplies in exchange for their working for their backers for seven years.
In Southampton, the two groups met together and were joined by additional colonists hired by the investors. The two ships began the voyage, but the Speedwell leaked so badly that the expedition had to return to England, first to Dartmouth and then to Plymouth. Finally, the Pilgrims sold the Speedwell and they all set out from Plymouth7 on board the Mayflower. The Mayflower was a sizable cargo ship (for those days) of 180 ton capacity and around 90 feet8 in length. She had served many years in the wine trade between England and France. With the crowding of over 100 passengers9 plus crew, each family was allotted very little space for personal belongings.
So, on 6th September 1620, the Pilgrims again set sail for the New World across the Atlantic. The long trip was cold and damp and took sixty-five days. Since there was the danger of fire on the wooden ship, all their food had to be eaten cold. At one point, the ship’s main beam cracked and had to be repaired using a large iron screw. The discomforts and privations of the trip led to many disagreements between the religious ‘Saints’ and the rest, whom they called ‘Strangers’. Many passengers became sick and one person died by the time land was sighted on 10th November. When the passengers caught sight of land, they realised that they had failed to reach Virginia10, which was where they had permission to settle.
However, now that they were near their destination, a meeting was held and an agreement was worked out, called the Mayflower Compact, which guaranteed equality and unified the two groups, who joined together and first named themselves the ‘Pilgrims’.
Although they had first sighted land off Cape Cod in Newfoundland, they did not settle until they arrived at Plymouth, which had been named after the port in England by Captain John Smith in 1614. Plymouth offered an excellent harbour, like its namesake, and a large brook was filled with fish. The Pilgrims biggest concern was attack by the local Native American Indians, the ‘Patuxets’, but they were a peaceful group and proved not to be a threat.
The first winter was devastating for the Pilgrims. The cold, snow and sleet was exceptionally heavy, interfering with the workers as they tried to construct their settlement. March brought warmer weather and the health of the Pilgrims improved, but many had died during the long winter - of those Pilgrims and crew who left England, fewer than 50 survived the first winter.
On 16th March 1621, what was to become an important event took place, an Indian11 brave walked into the Plymouth settlement. The Pilgrims were frightened until the Indian called out “Welcome” in English! His name was Samoset and he was an Abnaki Indian. He had learned English from the captains of fishing boats that had sailed off the coast. After staying the night Samoset left the next day. He soon returned with another Indian named Squanto who spoke better English than Samoset. Squanto told the Pilgrims of his voyages across the ocean and his visits to Spain and England, where he had learned English.
Squanto’s importance to the Pilgrims was enormous and it can be said that they would not have survived without his help. He taught the Pilgrims how to tap the maple trees for sap, which plants were poisonous and which had medicinal powers. He showed them how to plant the Indian corn by heaping the earth into low mounds with several seeds and fish in each mound so that the decaying fish fertilised the corn. The harvest in October was very successful and the Pilgrims found themselves with enough food to put away for the winter. There was corn, fruits and vegetables, fish to be packed in salt, and meat to be cured over smoky fires.
The Pilgrims had much to celebrate: they had built homes in the wilderness, they had raised enough crops to keep them alive during the long coming winter and they were at peace with their Indian neighbours. They had beaten the odds and it was time to celebrate.
The Pilgrim Governor, William Bradford, proclaimed a day of thanksgiving to be shared by all the colonists and the neighbouring Native Americans. They invited Squanto and the other Indians to join them in their celebration. Their chief, Massasoit, and ninety braves came to the celebration which lasted for three days. They played games, ran races, marched and played drums. The Indians demonstrated their skills with the bow and arrow and the Pilgrims demonstrated their musket skills. Exactly when the festival took place is uncertain, but it is believed the celebration took place in mid-October.
The following year the Pilgrims harvest was not as bountiful, as they were still unused to growing the corn. During the year they had also shared their supplies with more newcomers and the Pilgrims ran short of food.
The third year brought a spring and summer that was hot and dry with the crops dying in the fields. Governor Bradford ordered a day of fasting and prayer, and soon afterwards the rain came. The Governor proclaimed a day of thanksgiving on 29th November that was to be shared by all the colonists and the neighbouring Native American Indians. This date is believed to be the real true beginning of the present day Thanksgiving Day.
The custom of an annually celebrated thanksgiving, held after the harvest, continued through the years. During the American Revolution (late 1770’s) a day of national thanksgiving was suggested by the Continental Congress. In 1817 New York State had adopted Thanksgiving Day as an annual custom. By the middle of the 19th century many other states also celebrated a Thanksgiving Day. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln appointed a national day of thanksgiving. Since then each president has issued a Thanksgiving Day proclamation, usually designating the fourth Thursday of each November as the holiday.
Of all the Thanksgiving symbols, the Turkey has become the most well known. The wild turkey is native to northern Mexico and the eastern United States. The turkey has brown features with buff12-coloured feathers on the tips of the wing and on the tail. The male turkey is called a Tom and, as with most birds, is bigger and has brighter and more colourful plumage. The female is called a Hen and is generally smaller and drab in colour. The Tom turkey has a long wattle13 at the base of its bill and additional wattles on the neck, as well as a prominent tuft of bristles resembling a beard projecting downward from its chest. The turkey was originally domesticated in Mexico, and was brought into Europe early in the 16th century. Since that time, turkeys have been extensively raised because of the excellent quality of their meat and eggs. Some of the common breeds of turkey in the United States are the Bronze, Narragansett, White Holland, and Bourbon Red. Though there is no real evidence that turkey was served at the Pilgrim’s first thanksgiving, in a book written by the Pilgrim’s Governor Bradford he does make mention of wild turkeys. In a letter sent to England, another Pilgrim describes how the governor sent “four men out fowling” returning with turkeys, ducks and geese.
1 Also known as maize or sweet corn in the UK.
2 Many people had visited the country before for trading and exploratory purposes, but these were the first Europeans to establish permanent settlements in North America.
3 A strict Protestant sect known as Puritans.
4 Leiden is a pretty town in the middle of the Netherlands (Holland).
5 In the village of Jordans in Buckinghamshire in England, there is an old barn said to be largely made from the timbers of the Mayflower. Nearby is William Penn’s grave – he founded Pennsylvania in the USA.
6 It was not pure altruism on the part of the investors; they hoped for a solid financial return on their investment.
7 There is a set of steps in Plymouth said to be those down which the Pilgrims finally left England.
8 27 metres.
9 One account says there were 44 Pilgrims and 66 others; another account mentions 102 passengers as well as crew.
10 Named after (US English has it ‘named for’) Queen Elizabeth I, known as the Virgin Queen because she never married.
11 That is a Native American, formerly (and still in the UK) known as a Red Indian as the first Europeans to get there thought they had arrived in India.
12 A light brown, fawn.
13 A fleshy, wrinkled, brightly coloured fold of skin hanging from the neck or throat.
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