Thursday, December 15, 2005

Thanksgiving, Hold the Malarky

Thanksgiving, Hold the Malarky
Hilary Flower

It’s that time of year again. And this year, now that my eldest is seven, I feel it’s time. Time to roll up our sleeves, and kick some Pilgrim ass.

When I was a kid, November was a time of relentless black steeple hats with buckles, black-and-white dressed Pilgrims with their hearty smiles holding hands with near-naked be-feathered Indians at well-set tables graced with those wacky cornucopias. Oh the coloring sheets, the pageants, the picture books, the mimeographed worksheets. It was with a great degree of cynicism that I eventually learned that I had been handed a cornucopia of bullshit.

Now as a mama of homeschooling kids I savor the fact that my children have a very low probability of ever making a single black construction-paper pilgrim hat. On the contrary, as part of their history lesson, in time, they will come to learn how the term “genocide” fits into Indian-American relations, both historically and today. But this year will be just our first steps. In past years we have had our own quirky celebration of Thanksgiving, but there was no Pilgrim story attached to it. The very concept of history is still vague to my children, mostly being defined as “the time before there were stores.”

So it was with some relish that I pulled up google and plugged in the search terms “pilgrim,” “Thanksgiving” and “myth.” My cynicism was well rewarded.
First off, the pilgrims may have worn cloth caps to keep their heads warm. But that’s it. No big black numbers. And no buckles for their hats, pants, or shoes. The Victorians made Thanksgiving into a National holiday, and eventually brought the pilgrim harvest feast into the picture, complete with their own, um, creative interpretations. It was the Victorians who provided the buckles in order to make the Pilgrims look quaint. And there is absolutely no reason to believe they wore black and white clothes.

And it was the Victorians who appreciated a lavishly set table with turkey, cranberry sauce, yams, cornbread, and pumpkin pie. The Pilgrims may or may not have had turkey; the only historical account just mentions a lot of (wild) fowl. I’m inclined to let that one go. But neither yams nor sweet potatoes had been introduced to the New World yet (not to mention mini-marshmallows). They didn’t make cranberry sauce, since they had nothing to sweeten it with. And historians say that the Pilgrims, having no utensils or plates, and knowing nothing about germs, most likely scooped food with their hands straight out of communal bowls. (Yeah! How I wish I could share that detail with my uptight late-grandmother. My kids have been using that authentic approach for years.)

And common sense alone determines that in November in New England the Wampanoag people were certainly NOT dressed in their birthday suits plus loin cloths; write another one off to the spice-it-up Victorians. Nor were the Wampanoag people into feathered headdresses or Mohawks, as frequently depicted.

It’s hard to find picture books that don’t promote these same tired myths, botch basic facts, or invent new embellishments of their own. I pulled a stack of books from the library, discarded half, and am left with a small stack of ones that, if not fully truthful, are at least not a free-for-all.

But even one of the best of the lot, Don’t Know Much About: The Pilgrims lives up to its title. It’s introduction boasts about all the myth-busting the book is going to do, and yet on the very next page it goes into detail about the Pilgrims being Puritans. No they weren’t. They were Separatists; they did not feel the Church of England was capable of reform, or “purification;” the Puritans were a distinct group of settlers who came much later. And in this book’s section on Thanksgiving Day, the author can’t resist making up a whole set of imagined festivities, including target practice (the settlers using rifles and the Indians bows and arrows), a military parade, the Indians dancing, and so on. I would go along with it if they had prefaced that section with “We will never know for sure, but we imagine that perhaps….” Why do children’s nonfiction books play so fast and loose with the boundary between historical fact and fiction? I think children deserve better.

As far as I can gather, long ago, in the autumn of 1621, there was a spontaneous four day harvest feast shared by early American settlers and 90 or so Wampanoag people who brought deer. The settlers had just gotten through their first winter in the New World, and not all had survived. Yet they were experiencing wondrous bounty and warm relations with the Indians they had once feared. What a fascinating time in our history, made more human and intriguing by stripping off the Victorian embellishments. It makes a useful starting place for talking about the founding of our country, and the later, tragic, chapters in Early American—Native American relations.

As we sit with our Pilgrim books, I talk to my children about where the limits of facts end and where the guessing, and myth-making, begins. It’s a lot to talk about. A lot to process, even if you start with a very small piece of the story.
And way more questions than I can answer.

“Why did they come?”

“Why was it hard to survive?”

“Why do the books not agree about what happened?”

“Why did the early Americans end up taking the country away from the Native Americans, instead of sharing it?”

Okay so I jumped a little ahead by accident and told them a little more than the 1621 part of the story. Got a little too deep too fast. I remind myself that these are just our first steps. And that as the years go by my children can find more and more answers for themselves. And whatever we do, they don’t have to make one single fucking pilgrim hat.

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