The First Thanksgiving, or, The First American Protestant Christian Thanksgiving

If you went through elementary school in the United States then you probably know all about The First Thanksgiving.  In 1620, weary Pilgrims set out from the Old World in search of a home: The New World of America.  After a terrible first winter, they established homes, befriended local Indian peoples, and planted their first crops.  By late 1621, the Pilgrims were reaping a bountiful harvest, complete with pumpkins and little hand-traced turkeys decorating the table (at least, that’s what I learned).  They invited their Indian neighbors to join in the feast and thank God for the harvest.  The First Thanksgiving.

But it wasn’t The First Thanksgiving.

People all over the world had celebrated harvests for centuries, so it wasn’t really first.

Indian peoples had been celebrating the fall harvest in America long before the Pilgrims arrived.

Spanish colonists celebrated thanksgiving masses in Florida and Texas for decades before the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts.

The Pilgrims weren’t even the first Protestants to do this!  That distinction goes to the French Huguenots who held a thanksgiving service and celebration in 1564 near present-day Jacksonville, Florida.

So, what do we call the Pilgrims’ feast in 1621?  Robert McKenzie, a professor and chair of the department of history at Wheaton College tongue-in-cheek suggests:

“The First American Protestant Christian Thanksgiving”

Over the last week, I have been reading McKenzie’s newest book, The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells us about Loving God and Learning from History.  It has been fascinating, eye-opening, and challenging to me as a historian, as an American, and as a Christian.

By taking apart this American myth of The First Thanksgiving, he is not trying to ruin the holiday.  It’s a great holiday!  We should keep celebrating it, with great thanks!  But McKenzie is calling us not just to thank, but to think.  Think not just about the holiday, but about our myths and assumptions as American Christians when it comes to our past.

What is true?  What purposes do our national myths serve?  Are we remembering stories that are helpful to us, and purposefully forgetting stories that shed light on parts of our history we would like to keep in the dark?

For my part, I will be pondering this over Thanksgiving: What would my life look like if I thought about it as part of a broader context, rather than as just my own?  The Pilgrims were not the first, nor were they alone.  They were part of something bigger than themselves.  If my life belongs not just to me, but to those around me, before me, and after me, then my life will be about more than me.  I will reach out to my neighbors.  I will seek the advice of people older than me.  I will remember the contributions of people different from myself who have made my life possible.  I will be thankful for so much more than Thanksgiving.

NOTE: This blog was wholly inspired by Professor Robert Thomas McKenzie’s work.  You can find more in:
His book: The First Thanksgiving
– His blog: Faith and History: Thinking Christianly about the American Past
– His faculty page at Wheaton College

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