I remember when I was young and the lingering chill of the mid day air alerted that autumn was in full swing. Halloween had come and gone and Christmas seemed so far off still; but there was Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving was an unusual holiday for my generation. Historically this day was of equal or greater importance to our ancestors in America than any other holiday, including Christmas. In fact for many years under early puritan rule Christmas day passed by and found people hard at work and those few who chose to celebrate did so under fear of prosecution. It was just another day but Thanksgiving, as yet not an official day of thanks, was met with celebration and true thanksgiving, several days were set aside for feasting, games and time with family and community. This was a trend that remained a foundation of America for nearly three centuries. The Revolutionary war came and brought new ideas and ideals and with them new things for which to be thankful; and later still came the Civil war with so much bloodshed and torn familial relations, yet Thanksgiving remained intact, important, and even necessary to heal the deep wounds. America entered a gilded age and Thanksgiving took on the sheen of gold along with everything else. Even among the lowest of the lower classes there were it seemed reasons for thanks.
Then, as the dawn of a new century appeared on the horizon new wars erupted and America was pushed onto the world stage (or some would argue brought to it). Conflicts with Spain close to home and little known Islands in far away places whose names few people had ever bothered to learn and fewer still bothered to teach. These led to bigger conflicts where America’s humble origins were tested against the mettle of great and terrible Empires whose powerful shadows loomed over the globe, all of it except for the map where America’s freedoms took hold. We acquitted ourselves well, as true born sons of Liberty and by our acquittal we changed the face of the global map for good mostly, also in some ways perhaps not so good. World war one raged, burning Europe in a fervor that threatened all peace and yet it, like all things came to an end and we as Americans gave thanks and our allies gave thanks with us. Even our enemies, though defeated could find reason for thanks at the renewal of peace after so much horror. We offered thanks and wondered if it could ever happen again. It could and World War Two exploded so much more terrible than anything to come before.
The vaults of the heavens and the foundations of all the earth seemed to tremble as the skies were blackened by new weapons. The earth trembled with machines whose only purpose was to deliver death and destruction. Beneath the seas crept leviathans whose teeth could lash out across vast distances and crush hundreds, thousands in a single bite and sneak away unseen, unheard to feed again. This war was different from all the others not only is ferocity and scope but in intent. Nothing short of a new man was the goal of the aggressors, a super man, a perfect man and all other men would in due time be cast aside to make way.
It was once said of America, in another war, one for our independence that it was not a birth of a new nation but the birth of a new kind of man that was occurring. An eye witness looked out over the field of battle and saw his foe, bedraggled in torn clothing, savage in countenance yet noble in bearing and seemingly supernatural in his becoming something more than what man had heretofore been. We had become new men, Americans, and this was not seen as being the definition of a new nation, but a new order of things. The world would never be the same. Now, here was the proposition of a new man again but what sort of man would destroy others to make room for himself? To emulate whole populations in the name of racial purity and evolution. For Americans we made room for others and in so doing made ourselves great. World War Two was in many ways a moral test as much as it was a contest of arms. What kind of man would the world have and how far would we go to fight what was the good fight? So many years the world was rent asunder, raped and pillaged and decimated. Whole races were made the target of mindless aggression and yet, through it all, in America where we at least safe from the front lines of so much hell we gave thanks for what we had, even though what was had was stretched thin as our bounty traveled the world to feed the oppressed and the defenders of the oppressed. But as to all things this passed and the world once again found peace and gave thanks once again for that peace and hoped and prayed it would never happen again.
Two more wars would find their way into the soul of America, both in far away places where the people were different and the languages were strange and unfamiliar and the customs were unusual. Korea and Vietnam came and went and with them everything changed. The 1950’s saw America bursting at the seems with patriotic fervor and the thanksgiving celebrations during this time were truly something to behold, National affairs. To be proud to be an American meant something then. But as I said, it all changed. The 50’s gave way to the radical 60s and we lost our way. We demanded peace but were to afraid to proclaim what it meant. It was more important to tune in and drop out than to dig deep and get our hands dirty. Our founding fathers were ridiculed and our pilgrim fore bears were scorned. Soon history books would be re-written showing the truth of who they were, or at least the part of the truth most fitting to serve entropy. America came to worship decay and anything that might be built upon was tossed aside. The 70s and 80’s rose up and there was no more room for grand myths of America. It was all lies anyway so why bother to give it heed when there was money to be made and progress to strive for. America began to die during this period and it still lingers sick and dying and along with it all our reasons to be thankful.
So why bother with a myth of a dying nation? What good could it serve?
I go back to the beginning when I can remember being young and the feeling of the lingering chill of the mid day telling me that autumn was in full swing. Back to when Halloween had come and gone and Christmas still seemed so far off; but there was Thanksgiving. And all the myths of that special day.
I remember school projects, making hand print cutouts to turn into paper turkeys and drawing scenes of the first thanksgiving with Pilgrims in black hats and Indians in feathers around a common table, sharing a feast. This was true actually and no amount of historical re-writing can alter the truth of it. Within a few years things would be different. The friendly Indians would be recast as savages and the pilgrims, joyful and happy would be plagued with sufficient cause to be grim, Indian wars (can we call it that when the aggressors were both Indian and white?) would flower and then wither, decaying further what was left of friendly relations and the hope of peaceful cohabitation.
The White man would of course win the day and the right to create the histories but we still have that first magical day when everything was peaceful and two strange peoples found room to live together, live peacefully and live with mutual compassion. Most of the story of that first Thanksgiving as we have learned it is a myth and that myth itself is more complicated than we would imagine. Even the truth within the myth is complicated by conflicting truths and desires. The Indians, far from being innocent victims actively sought the military assistance of the English colonists in fighting their own Indian enemies and building up tribal empires and to achieve this they would offer anything the English asked for, mainly land until all their land was gone and all they could do was to fight the English to protect what they had been offering so freely. It was desperation on both parties, desperations to create a new life and desperation to protect an old life.
So why should we pay any heed to the myths of Thanksgiving? Because it is the myth by which we better ourselves and the world. Without the myth to guide us we have nothing. Slavery ended, women gained the vote, children no longer work in coal mines, Indians may now live and work and play alongside all other Americans as equals, Europe was liberated from a world burning tyrant and we can look at our history, guided by the myths and penetrate deeper truths than would be available otherwise. We must not look away from the horrors of our past or the many, many failings of our nation, our ideals and our actions but we should not look so closely into the pit of our own failures that we fall into it and become lost. The myths, when we honor them and treat them with respect offer a shining light by which all truth might be illuminated, for what is a myth if not what our hearts wish to be true.
I for one will be thankful and no longer surrender Thanksgiving to the murderous intent of entropy because no matter what we are told was true there was a day long ago when civilized man and savage man met in the wild, wild wood and locked hands in fellowship and together feasted and gamed and laughed and were glad to know one another.
That is worthy of giving thanks...