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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

The true story of Thanksgiving

If some of this column seems familiar, it’s because it is. It also seems that the true story of America’s Thanksgiving cannot be told often enough – especially now that it is swallowed up between Halloween and Christmas. Nor do most Americans realize that our festival is not unique.

Canadians, whose fall harvest comes earlier than ours, already have celebrated their Thanksgiving. When we were in Korea one September, we found their version going full blast. The sophisticated hotel where we stayed was full of dry corn stalks, gourds, and pumpkins – looking much like American lobbies two months later. The university provided a driver for us (Korean traffic is much too dangerous for mere Americans), and our schedule was distracted a bit one day when Mr. Moon wanted to go off the regular route to find grapes for his girlfriend. It turned out that grapes are an essential fall offering to Buddha, and because he had access to a car, he got them for her. He was a bit embarrassed by this; we thought it was sweet.

Okay, the next two paragraphs are going to be completely off the subject, but mentioning that student driver inspires me. Late in our three weeks at the university, which was appreciably north of Seoul, he asked if it would be okay if he took his girlfriend on our next trip to town. His motivation was that neither he nor our other student driver, Choel Min Kim, ever had seen any sign of physical affection between their parents. They thought it remarkable that Hubby and I sometimes held hands and gave each other the occasional kiss – and Moon, who was deeply in love, wanted his girlfriend to witness this possibility.

I’m sorry I can’t remember Moon’s first name, but he was a fine guy – as was Choel Min Kim. He was the more cosmopolitan of the two, having lived in several countries outside of Korea, and his family name of “Kim” also denoted high status. He told us that he was descended from the royal family whose burial grounds were near the university. Choel Min was politically aware and dedicated to democracy (not always the case in Korea), and he very much wanted to come to America. He eventually managed that, and maybe next week I’ll return to him, as I plan to write about immigration. Now, though, it’s back to Thanksgiving.

* * *

It’s time for the annual reminder to Floridians that we were first!
The first Mass of Thanksgiving in North America that can be verified was with Ponce de Leon’s voyage in 1513 – more than a century prior to the famous Pilgrims in 1621. De Leon did not succeed in settling Florida, however, and the first thanksgiving at a site that became permanent was in St. Augustine, on September 8, 1565. They probably ate garbanzo bean soup, not turkey.

So why are Americans so convinced that our festival dates to Plymouth in 1621? It’s largely because the Pilgrims were English-speaking Protestants, while Florida’s Spanish-speakers were Catholic. Catholicism was anathema to most Americans for most of our history, something that many have forgotten today. We probably should be thankful for that new tolerance, although not for our ignorance of our past.

It’s also because the Spanish did not establish public schools, which Massachusetts’ settlers did. They believed every person should be able to read the Bible in their own language, unlike Catholic priests who held strictly to Latin for centuries. Nor did the church in Rome send nuns to the Florida frontier, whereas New England allowed women to teach. Young schoolmarms continually went west, and in the centuries that followed, they taught the Plymouth version of history.

Or at least a sanitized, sanctified version of it. Following the gender patterns expected of them, teachers and preachers gave much more credit to our Founding Fathers than to our Founding Mothers. By any measurable standard, though, those mothers suffered much more. The truth is that the Founding Fathers planned so poorly that most of the mothers lost their lives during that first terrible winter.

Historians still debate whether the Pilgrims planned to arrive in Massachusetts. They were supposed to go to Virginia, to the English colony that had begun with Jamestown in 1607. But after Captain John Smith, Pocahontas, and other Virginians arrived in London in 1616, the Pilgrims probably came to understand that Jamestown was filled with humanity’s lowest. It was a corporate enterprise, sponsored by men who wanted to get rich from tobacco, and its ruling value was self-interest. Most inhabitants were the more worthless sons of genteel families, white indentured servants (often recently released from English jails), and after 1619, when a Dutch ship brought them, African slaves.

Theologically minded Pilgrims would be reluctant to join such a lifestyle, and that their ship went “off course” made them independent. The Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock on December 25th—but that date did not matter because these pious people did not celebrate the cheerful holiday of Christmas. They viewed England’s “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” version of Christmas as little short of sinful, and aware that the date has no biblical basis, they did not celebrate it.

* * *

Distance doesn’t matter a whole lot between European places and their temperatures; except for mountains, the weather is likely to be much the same across the continent. Winters are dreary and chilly in England and Holland, where the Pilgrims came from, but not dangerously frigid. Thus they probably did not understand that the distance between Massachusetts and Virginia would be so significant in terms of snow and ice. Moreover, disease had spread during their long weeks at sea, and they were so sick that it was late January before they could manage to build any housing -- and then it was a twenty-foot square structure much smaller than their small ship. It was, in fact, a hospital, “as full of beds as they could lie one by another.”

Of the 104 people aboard the Mayflower, just 18 were adult women -- at least three of whom were pregnant when they ventured into the unknown. By the end of winter, 14 of the 18 were dead. The first was on December 7, when they still were docked at the northern tip of Cape Cod. Dorothy May Bradford, wife of the future governor, went overboard into the icy water and drowned. Having studied the deep hull of the Mayflower replica in Plymouth Harbor, I can’t help but conclude that it was a suicide.

Most women, however, held out for as long as they could – without depriving their children (and men) of sustenance. The 78% mortality rate for women compares with 40% for Plymouth’s men, and just 16% for children – during an era when childhood death numbers often were higher under purely normal circumstances. There is no doubt in my mind that these women literally starved themselves to death so that their children could eat.

Death came almost daily in February and March. Funerals were conducted furtively in darkness, lest spying Wampanoags see the diminishment of their numbers. But the fears of the English were wrong, as the natives helped them through the spring and summer. After they harvested their crop the next November, the two groups celebrated. The menu included not only those native foods that we associate with Thanksgiving—turkey, cranberries, corn, and squashes, including pumpkin—but also clams, lobster, venison, and other bounty that Wampanoag women doubtless introduced to the newcomers. Teenage girls, including the famed Priscilla Alden, probably constituted most of the white cooks; their mothers rested on the high hill of the colony’s cemetery.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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