By Greg O’Brien, Codfish Press
Feast on this: with apologies to Cape Cod and Plymouth, maybe George Bush knows more about history than we think. In a celebrated Thanksgiving visit with all the public-relations stuffing, Bush stopped off days ago at Berkeley Plantation in Charles City, Va., where English settlers held a Thanksgiving service almost two years before the universally accepted first Thanksgiving feast in Plymouth. Earlier in the day day, he made a brief appearance at an area food bank, where he loaded a few crates of oranges, potatoes and macaroni and cheese onto a rolling car, then good naturedly pressed a pastor standing next to him in the assembly line, “C’mon, man, let’s go!”
No stranger to White House encounters, Berkeley Plantation has hosted visits from the nation’s first 10 presidents. John F. Kennedy even acknowledged the site in a 1963 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation that read, in part: “Over three centuries ago, our forefathers in Virginia and in Massachusetts, far from home in a lonely wilderness, set aside a time of Thanksgiving.” On Dec. 4, 1619, to correct the record, Capt. John Woodlief and 38 crewmen observed a “day of Thanksgiving” upon their arrival in Virginia.
A Berkeley Plantation Charter proclaims in old English: “Wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as the day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”
So, what was all this Thanksgiving hype about Plymouth, Plymouth Plantation and parts of the Cape; is it historical fact, or fiction? Or is this recent Plymouth snub a Republican conspiracy designed to take aim at what the GOP perceives as two of the Democrats’ biggest turkeys—Ted Kennedy and John Kerry?
Hey, intrepid Christopher Columbus still gets a holiday!
By any measure, Bush’s excursion to Berkeley Plantation has taken a big slice out of Plymouth’s claim to fame, and has chamber-of-commerce types wringing their hands about an identity crisis on a day reserved for national reflection. However, upon further review, the institutional memory of the first Thanksgiving celebration in Plymouth is loaded with myths, detailed on History.Com. Here’s a sampling direct from the website:
Myth: “The first Thanksgiving was in 1621 and the pilgrims celebrated it every year thereafter.
Fact: “The first feast wasn't repeated, so it wasn't the beginning of a tradition. In fact, the colonists didn't even call the day Thanksgiving. To them, a thanksgiving was a religious holiday in which they would go to church and thank God for a specific event, such as the winning of a battle. On such a religious day, the types of recreational activities that the pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians participated in during the 1621 harvest feast--dancing, singing secular songs, playing games--wouldn't have been allowed. The feast was a secular celebration, so it never would have been considered a thanksgiving in the pilgrims minds.
Myth: “The original Thanksgiving feast took place on the fourth Thursday of November.
Fact: “The original feast in 1621 occurred sometime between September 21 and November 11. Unlike our modern holiday, it was three days long. The event was based on English harvest festivals, which traditionally occurred around the 29th of September. After that first harvest was completed by the Plymouth colonists, Gov. William Bradford proclaimed a day of thanksgiving and prayer, shared by all the colonists and neighboring Indians. In 1623 a day of fasting and prayer during a period of drought was changed to one of thanksgiving because the rain came during the prayers. Gradually the custom prevailed in New England of annually celebrating thanksgiving after the harvest.
“During the American Revolution a yearly day of national thanksgiving was suggested by the Continental Congress. In 1817 New York State adopted Thanksgiving Day as an annual custom, and by the middle of the 19th century many other states had done the same. In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln appointed a day of thanksgiving as the last Thursday in November, which he may have correlated it with the November 21, 1621, anchoring of the Mayflower at Cape Cod. Since then, each president has issued a Thanksgiving Day proclamation. President Franklin D. Roosevelt set the date for Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday of November in 1939 (approved by Congress in 1941).
Myth: “The pilgrims wore only black and white clothing. They had buckles on their hats, garments, and shoes.
Fact: “Buckles did not come into fashion until later in the seventeenth century and black and white were commonly worn only on Sunday and formal occasions. Women typically dressed in red, earthy green, brown, blue, violet, and gray, while men wore clothing in white, beige, black, earthy green, and brown.
Myth: “The pilgrims brought furniture with them on the Mayflower.
Fact: “The only furniture that the pilgrims brought on the Mayflower was chests and boxes. They constructed wooden furniture once they settled in Plymouth.
Myth: “The Mayflower was headed for Virginia, but due to a navigational mistake it ended up on Cape Cod.
Fact: “The Pilgrims were, in fact, planning to settle in Virginia, but not the modern-day state of Virginia. They were part of the Virginia Company, which had the rights to most of the eastern seaboard of the U.S. The pilgrims had intended to go to the Hudson River region in New York State, which would have been considered ‘Northern Virginia,’ but landed on Cape Cod instead. Treacherous seas prevented them from venturing further south.”
In spite of all the fact or fiction on Thanksgiving lore, Cape Cod and Plymouth are secure in their place in history. When it comes to the Pilgrims, at least, here’s where it all began.