Gratitude

William S.L. Jewett "The First Thanksgiving Dinner" wood engraving for Harper's Weekly, 1868, via The Clark Museum. The first federal Thanksgiving, that is, proclaimed by President Lincoln in fall 1863 to express the Union's gratitude for the victory at Gettysburg, which is perhaps what Father is focused on while the children tuck in.

Happy 400th Thanksgiving! Though I guess it's understood that the first one wasn't, technically, a thanksgiving. That is, they must have held one after that 1621 harvest, but in church, praying all day, not feasting, and not inviting the heathen savages in, and that's not what we're historically informed about. The feast, actually three days of feasting, undoubtedly took place too, as Edward Winslow wrote in a letter to a London connection, George Morton (sent with the ship that brought their first harvest of "Indian corn" and barley for sale on the English market, because they'd done much better, with Squanto's help, than just being able to feed themselves), 

Our harvest being collected our governor sent four men fowling together so we might rejoice together in a more special way after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. In just one day the hunters killed as much fowl as if their hunting party had been larger. The fowl fed the company almost a week at which time, among other recreations, we drilled with our fire arms. Many of the Indians joined us including Massasoit, the greatest king, and some ninety of his men. We all entertained and feasted together for three days. The Indians went out and killed five deer which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, the captain, and others. And although it is not always as plentiful as it was at that time, yet by the goodness of God we are so far from want that we often wish you could partake of our plenty.

There's a connection between thankfulness ceremonies, I think, and Puritan predestinationism, the religion of those Plymouth brethren who arrived in Massachusetts on the Mayflower in 1620, the idea that our lives and afterlives are chosen for us before we're even born, through the randomly apportioned Grace of God, so that if some of us are rewarded with eternal life in Heaven in the choir invisible and others doomed to eternal punishment below, it's not because of a choice we've made but a choice that has been made for us. And it's the the same for any prosperity we may enjoy in this life, prosperity being the "outward sign of inward Grace"; you can't really say you "earned" it, though you can say you deserve it—after all, the decision was God's, you're one of the Elect.

So when we go through a Christian thanksgiving ceremony, as so many of us did at the table yesterday, making the ritual statement of what we're particularly thankful for in our current lives, family and health and so on, I feel we're sneakily saying that we really are better than the less fortunate, not because we've worked so hard actually, but because God picked us (we are better than others, in fact, but that's because God decided we would be in advance). Which effectively says we do deserve our good fortune after all, which makes me a little bit mad. Which makes it disturbing for me to say I'm thankful—I'm so grateful my kids aren't in jail or single parents and I'm so grateful I'm going to get to retire some day, as these things are going to be denied to other people, because God decided they shouldn't have them. Really?

At the same time I have no interest in not having a good time with those privileges I can't really do anything about (that's to suggest I can do something about white privilege, though it's little enough, if only by agitating and pontificating and voting). I can't feel it's right to insist on suffering because some people suffer, the way poor Simone Weil did, eventually starving to death to protest the existence of hunger. But it's not so much gratitude I feel (to whom?) as a horror of waste. The world is so full of a number of things! How would it be wrong to enjoy such family and friends and health as we happen to have, and pie, you know, and crispy fall weather, and happy football to all those who observe it? How would skipping it help anybody?

It occurs to me, speaking of 1621, that conservatives who protest against the "1619" thesis, that the nation was founded the year the first enslaved Africans reached our shores, are pulling a head fake pointing at 1776—the year the Continental Congress declared independence from King and Parliament with the observation that all men are created equal, with an inherent right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness of all things (Jefferson, as I've said before, amending John Locke's "life, liberty, and property" with an idea taken from the anti-church Rousseau). That revolutionary Enlightenment moment isn't really at all what they like. What they'd really like to claim as the founding is 1620, the foundation of a biblical City on a Hill by a crew of religious bigots


And to distract from the greedy investors of the 1607 Virginia plantation (where the 1619 ship landed and sold some human cargo from present-day Angola, the first Africans ever bought and sold by English-speakers in North America). American "exceptionalism" is conceived not in those grubby, ugly dealings but in Massachusetts in the hard winter of 1620-21, and born and baptized at the harvest that November, in the first Thanksgiving.

Except, as I'm suggesting here, the thing we're most celebrating, without knowing it, isn't the grim all-white daylong prayer service that probably took place but isn't recorded. but rather the three-day interethnic meat orgy and attendant games we know about that wasn't in fact a thanksgiving but a party, that moment when the hairy, smelly little Englishmen and the tall and clean-limbed Wampanoags really relaxed with each other. Winslow wrote of that period,

We have found the Indians very faithful in their covenant of peace with us and very loving and ready to please us. We often visit them, and they come to us. Some of us have explored fifty miles into the land with them. The occasions and relations of them you shall understand by our general and more full declaration of such things as are worth noting [in A Relation]. Yea, it has pleased God to instill in the Indians a fear of us and love unto us so that not only their greatest king, Massasoit, but also all the princes and peoples round about us have visited us.…There is now great peace among the Indians themselves which was not the case formerly, neither would have been but for us, and we for our part walk as peaceably and safely in the wood as on the highways in England. We entertain the Indians familiarly in our houses and they are friendly to us bestowing their venison as gifts. They are a people without any religion or knowledge of any God, yet they are very trustworthy, quick of apprehension, and ripe witted.

(Not unproblematic, by any means, but take particular note of that cheerful acceptance of what looked to Winslow like atheism.)

That's when America ought to have been founded, not in formal expressions of gratitude in church, and that's what we keep making an effort to think about in our November holiday, whether we realize it or not. Not so much what was as what might have been if they'd kept on that happy path. Or, you know, an ideal of reparation and fellowship that we can keep aspiring toward, if we want this place to remain livable.

Cross-posted at The Rectification of Names.