Thanksgiving is an annual reminder of America's refugee origins

Painting by Charles Lucy depicts pilgrims arriving on the Mayflower and landing in New England.
Painting by Charles Lucy depicts pilgrims arriving on the Mayflower and landing in New England. Getty Images

Every culture has its harvest festival, but the distinctly North American tradition of Thanksgiving is wrapped up in myths of national origin. In both Canada and the United States, the annual meals became institutionalized in the mid-19th century as two young countries sought to foster both a sense of national pride and identity.

President Abraham Lincoln codified the American version of Thanksgiving with this proclamation in 1863, in which he urged his compatriots, still fighting the Civil War, to think of those afflicted by “the lamentable civil strife” and hope for the healing of “the wounds of the nation.”

Of course, Thanksgiving in the United States centers on an older historical event: A 1621 repast enjoyed by the fledgling colony of Pilgrims in Plymouth and a number of their indigenous neighbors.

It’s the meal that seemingly made the nation. As the legend goes, the small settlement suffered a hideous winter and famine in 1620 and lost half their number to starvation and disease. But through industry and a bit of local help, the Pilgrims emerged with a greater bounty the following year and celebrated their fortune with a feast that cemented their place in an alien land.

What’s now the East Coast of the United States was home to many other types of English and European settlements in the early 17th century — with settlers and colonial administrations that probably would have little time for the Pilgrims of Plymouth — but their singular plight has defined the early American experience in school textbooks and popular culture and undergirded myths of American exceptionalism.

For the Pilgrims, there was certainly a lot to be grateful for. Their radical brand of Puritanism, identified as “Separatism” because of its disavowal of the Church of England, left them vulnerable to fines, imprisonment, and persecution in their home country. They spent more than a decade in exile in what is now the Netherlands, but suffered financially and feared they would be in danger if the political winds in the continent started blowing in a different direction. The preceding and following years in European history present a litany of religious massacres and pogroms.

So they set sail aboard a couple of ships, including one famously named the Mayflower, as early modern refugees seeking a better life in a different part of the world.

President Obama summoned that simple aspiration two Thanksgivings ago, when the mood in his country was decidedly hostile to the plight of Syrian refugees.

Obama’s successor, President Trump, doesn’t quite seem to agree. He grandstands on a nationalist platform that looks darkly upon migrants and has sought to stanch the already thin flow of refugees into the United States.

That rhetoric shadowed Trump’s remarks at the traditional annual White House turkey pardoning ritual on Tuesday. “This Thursday, as we give thanks for our cherished loved ones, let us also renew our bonds of trust, loyalty and affection between our fellow citizens as members of a proud national family of Americans,” Trump said.

For the American right wing, the Thanksgiving story offers a different parable that has nothing to do with refugees. For decades, conservatives argued that a shift in farming practices toward private plots and away from communal farming was what saved the embattled Massachusetts colony from extinction. “So began the American recoil from collectivism,” noted Washington Post columnist George Will in 2006 in a piece that linked Thanksgiving to “the ascent of individualism.”

“The idea, which has the twin virtues of reaffirming the wisdom of the free-market system and discounting the modern multiculturalist notion that the pilgrims succeeded with the help of Native Americans, is rooted in historical accounts. It has some flaws, though,” wrote Slate’s Joshua Keating a few years back.

Those include the fact that the move away from collectivized agriculture took place in 1623 — two years after the Thanksgiving meal of lore.

Moreover, the Pilgrims in Plymouth were still beholden to English investors who had bankrolled their voyage and expected some return in goods.

Whatever the case, of course, there’s no happy ending for the indigenous people who attended the first Thanksgiving feast, bearing five deer hunted for the occasion.

Contact with Europeans before the Pilgrims’ arrival had already led to smallpox eradicating whole communities. The years that followed would complete their dispossession and disappearance.

Strangely, at a time when the American far right decries the existential threat posed by refugees with supposedly fundamentalist religious convictions, they have no problem aligning with the country’s original migrants.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post.

The Washington Post