In early winter 1620, 102 English pilgrims fleeing religious persecution landed on the shores of North America in modern day Massachusetts. The first year proved grievous and tumultuous for the newly established Plymouth Colony. Nearly half of the settlers died during the winter of 1620-1621, and those who survived decided to set aside a day of thanksgiving to God with a small autumn feast. Unlike Thanksgiving in the 21st century, there were no tables or chairs, no silverware, and no turkeys, rather the roughly fifty remaining colonists ate mostly seafood and vegetables grown from their recently established gardens. Local Native American warriors arrived, seemingly uninvited, but the pilgrims fed them willingly from their stores. After all, the natives had provided the pilgrims with some food during their first winter on the North American continent, and so the colonists were willing, but not excited, to have their uninvited guests present. The “First Thanksgiving,” as it is known today, was not repeated the following year, and the myth around the event grew more grand and more elaborate into the 18th and 19th centuries. Despite the increase in embellished facts, no formal holiday was yet established in the northern United States, and the tradition was essentially unseen in the South.
Thanksgiving remained local, northern, and unofficial for over a century until the third year of the American Civil War. In October 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a “Proclamation of Thanksgiving” to be celebrated on the “final Thursday of [the month of] November.” Lincoln both acknowledged a tradition, the tenuous practice of Thanksgiving north of the Mason-Dixon Line that had become popular, and requested that the nation celebrate recent Union Army victories in the Civil War during the summer of 1863. While he was drawing on the practice of late feasting grown from the original tale of the Pilgrims’ first feast, no yearly practice can be traced from the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth in 1620 to Lincoln’s Proclamation in 1863. Instead, the development of the holiday gradually crept into the annual practice of Northerners, becoming a highly symbolic and distinctly American holiday rooted predominantly in myth. The fact that the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving didn’t really happen, does not matter. It’s true now, just as all myths are truthful, and Lincoln seized on that truth with his usual attentiveness.
Myth functions as truth. This contradicts modern conceptions of truth. Modern Americans pride themselves on their factual knowledge of the world and the practices that correspond with that view. In the early 2010’s, a university professor lectured at a local high school on Thanksgiving eve on the topic of “Fact and Fiction in the First Thanksgiving”. He spent 45 minutes carefully parsing out the known facts and myths concerning that famous 1621 feast. He explained that some information, long held, was in fact incorrect, or at least extrapolated too wildly, and that some things were indeed rightly remembered. In the end, he concluded that Thanksgiving was a mythic holiday built on something other than the events of Plymouth in autumn of 1621.
After the event was over, as the professor was walking to his car, a parent and student approached him; they thanked him for speaking, and the parent proceeded to ask him a question: After all the things you have said about the mythic elements of this national holiday, what are you doing tomorrow for Thanksgiving? The professor was startled by the question. Given all he had said concerning the truth about the events of the Pilgrims’ feast, he had not thought about whether this might affect his own celebration of this national holiday. Of course, he was still having his extended family over for a great Thanksgiving meal! This is because the true events were not “the truest events” influencing his yearly tradition and practice. The myth was the truest thing. The liturgical yearly practice of feasting with family was what was chiefly true. That is true for all Americans who celebrate Thanksgiving, and it shows us something important about myth, truth, and habits.
Narratives that develop from extrapolation of a historical event are not exactly that same thing as Greek and Roman myths, yet they share something central that impacts humanity. They communicate something about the nature of knowing. While modern people claim a haughty cerebral relationship to the study and knowledge of the past, they function less precisely or critically. They are willing to participate in the reenactment of historical myth because it has become more true than the true facts of the event. Too often, modern, western people are ready to defend their critique of the ancients, seeing Greek and Roman myth as something clearly false. Ancient peoples were dumb, easily misled, and foolish for believing in such things, it is often remarked. In practice, modern people relate in extremely similar ways to history. Elaborate and expanded stories that fill in the gaps around historical events become the truth of the event. It is as if it does not matter whether it was true, and this says something about our human nature. The yearly, monthly, weekly, and daily practices of our religious, political, social, and national lives are formed by our habits more than our cerebral knowledge. People either believe something mythic about Thanksgiving and its history, or they know the more accurate historical details. Regardless, they still gather together with family and enjoy living within the tradition of the myth every Thanksgiving. Being a part of a historical, national tradition is comforting.
This shows us something about human nature that is important to remember in a classroom, a sanctuary, a home, and a nation. People are apt to believe what they practice more than what they know. The liturgical habits of days, weeks, months, and years are more formative and even more true than the cerebral information we assent to intellectually. We should be careful then, to attend to our practices, habits, and liturgies. Thanksgiving should call to mind, if we can see both our practice and the history, that we are liturgical beings formed chiefly by the habits of the heart more than the head. Maybe Thanksgiving is a pre-advent marker. It’s a signpost that prepares us to be prepared, insisting that we remember that habits form and shape our being. God calls head and heart into the work of the people, the church, to truly prepare us for the coming of the Christ-child and the coming of the Kingdom.