Wednesday, December 15, 2004

After Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is over and the Christmas lights are now up. . . . I just noticed? Rather--these holidays come like hurricanes in Florida, and it takes a while to clean up after. Mentally.

Again this year we were roasting dead animals in the house. If you do this all the time you don't notice (I know, because I never used to) but the smell is really, uh, striking. They came out fine, though, and went off to the local soup-kitchen where they were served out as part of the holiday meal. So that was all right.

Meanwhile, one of my friends did a little reading into the backstory of this holiday:

Thanksgiving was very hit-or-miss until it got official sanction and support as part of the New Deal. The idea was to strengthen the image of the Federal Government as an organizer of the co-operation among citizens who were no longer just independently pursuing their own scams, but living together as a nation, a sort of tribe or extended family concerned for each other's well-being.

The original Thanksgiving really did occur. A winter of starvation and near-failure of the colonists at Plymouth--who had landed in 1620 with the idea of founding a religious community--was followed by a successful summer in which the good advice of the native people helped to create a harvest that secured survival for the winter and boded well for the colony's eventual success. A harvest-home celebration was held some time toward the end of the summer after the crops were in. It might have been in September or as late as mid-October. It was certainly not held in November which in New England is already too cold. There was (wild) turkey, but almost certainly other meat as well. There was squash and corn (maize). There was no sugar and (hence) no cranberries. It was perhaps a bit individualistic--each house creating its own meal: There was no communal dinner in the way we somehow imagine, but seemingly some visiting house to house. Nor were the local people actually invited, but they did come by to see what was going on, and were welcomed well enough. There was discussion, and a treaty was made--a pact of cautious friendship and non-aggression.

Cautious, because on both sides there was doubt. For the colonists' part, opinion ranged from the view that they were dealing with intelligent animals, or perhaps worshippers of the Devil, to the the view that the locals were obviously people, who though conspicuously different, must be part of God's plan as their ways plainly worked and suited them. For the native people, the idea that the Law could come out of a Book could not have been more different from their experience of the Law as the actual workings of the world, but they did not make it their concern what others thought for themselves.

Both sides wanted peace: The natives were being pressed by an aggressive tribe from the interior, and the small amount of land the Pilgrims were using seemed neither a serious encroachment nor a threat, if their intentions remained friendly. The Pilgrims were still uncertain about their future, and wanted allies, not enemies. There was no shortage of land, nor reason to imagine fighting over it.

The pact lasted forty years. An entire generation kept faith: Their descendents broke it. The religious fervor and conviction that had brought the Pilgrims to the New World gave way to materialism and greed. But perhaps the greed should not be over-emphasized, for in forty years many things transpired which eroded the basis of the agreement.

One of those things was the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which within a few years was setting up the nearby city of Boston. From the first, Massachusetts Bay was concerned with expansion and genocide. Almost immediately they were fielding search-and-destroy missions: One ranged as far as New Haven harbor. (New Haven was yet to be founded. What today is a three-and-a-half hour drive on the freeway was then a major trek by foot and horseback). At the same time they were attacking the native people physically, they were attacking the rights and legal perogatives of their English neighbors, including Plymouth Colony. By the time the treaty was broken, Plymouth was already a backwater of small political import, and the lands of the native people had largely been over-run by others.

As a religious community, Plymouth suffered from a flaw, and that was that it was financed as a profit-making venture that had to produce a return for its shareholders. So almost immediately they turned to dealing drugs as a way of making a profit. Then as now tobacco was the most addictive substance known to man. Somehow, the native people understood its danger and reserved it for spiritual use (and to deter insect pests in their gardens) but Europeans--specifically the Dutch, the French, and the English--found it a greater source of profit than gold. From the first, the high profits of tobacco attracted the adventurous, the ruthless, and the unscrupulous--murder, theft, and slaving were routine aspects of the trade. The colonists at Plymouth were really not suited to this sort of work, and were soon outclassed by others in North America.

Perhaps worse, Plymouth was undercapitalized. Where this told was in the fight with Massachusetts Bay: As Massachusetts grew Plymouth found itself unable to defend its rights. Plymouth survived, but disappeared into insignificance. The Plymouth Congregation still exists, and today--in keeping with its original religious idealism ;)--is Unitarian-Universalist.

So that's what we just celebrated. Nor is it such a bad story: What a different people we would be, if we had followed the way of Plymouth rather than Massachusetts.

But of course, we did not.

(My thanks to Robert K. Stephens, who was my source for facts.)