Five Things You Didn’t Know About American Thanksgiving

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I say American Thanksgiving because there’s also Canadian Thanksgiving on the second Monday of November. I can’t really write intelligently on the subject because I get the feeling that not even Canadians care that much about it, considering the holiday is optional in several of their provinces. But yes, there is a Canadian Thanksgiving. I sort of assume it’s the holiday where Martin Frobisher rides through town on a moose and gives hockey sticks and weird candy to all the good little children.

And if that’s not what happens, I’m going to pretend anyway.

That being said, let’s turn to America, which is always much more exciting and adept at historical revisionism. And when it comes to historical revisionism, Thanksgiving takes the cake. Or the turkey. We all know the story. The Pilgrims came over from England to escape religious persecution and landed at what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts. After a devastating first winter where half of the settlers died, they struggled to survive with the aid of the surrounding native peoples, particularly a generous Indian named Squanto. After the first successful harvest in 1621, they all sat down together and had a feast of remembrance, tolerance, and thanks. It’s a testament to the power of teamwork.

Or the power of capitalism and Holy Scripture, according to Rush Limbaugh.

This is the story most American children hear growing up, and it’s the same one I heard in Ireland on those rare occasions when American history came up in primary school. Like so many things, it wasn’t until I got to America that I found out that the story was, essentially, bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

So many of my childhood illusions were destroyed in America. See my earlier post on Martin Luther.

The specifics of the First Thanksgiving are hotly debated by scholars, and it’s very likely that anything I post here will be seized upon by a dozen or so blogistorians eager to tell me how inaccurate and wrong I am. I am prepared for this onslaught. But that being said, here are five things about Thanksgiving that they didn’t teach you in primary school.

1. The Pilgrims weren’t actual pilgrims.

Nor did they call themselves such. A pilgrim is someone who takes a journey for a religious reason, usually to a holy site. This is not what the Pilgrims were doing. In fact, they were not even trying to escape religious persecution. The Puritans who boarded the Mayflower already had religious freedom in Holland, where they originally fled to. And only a third of the passengers aboard the Mayflower were actually Puritans. The rest were businessmen, debtors, and others who wanted a new life and opportunity that they couldn’t find in Europe.

The voyage of the Mayflower wasn’t a religious journey. It was a business venture. And as they proceeded to capitalise on that business venture on someone else’s land, they were what all the rest of the European explorers and settlers were. Invaders and conquerors.

2. The Native Americans needed the settlers as much as the settlers needed them.

Remember that part of the story where the Wise and Kind Indians saved the poor, starving, desperate Pilgrims from certain death by showing them how to grow corn, hunt, and fish? There’s a major factor that’s usually left out. Smallpox. Also, measles.

By the time the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, the native tribes had endured several years of literal hell. Earlier European settlers had already encountered the natives and exposed them to the smallpox virus, mainly through infected cattle. By 1620, a staggering ninety percent of the Wampanoag and surrounding tribes had been completely wiped out. Even more were taken into slavery by the European invaders, including Squanto. As the Pilgrims struggled through their first terrible winter, the native tribes were dealing with the utter destruction of their people, their way of life, and everything they had ever known.

It was the perfect opportunity for two groups of different people to recognise each other’s worth and set aside differences to make a new life together.

Which of course didn’t happen because one side had guns.

3. The Wampanoag weren’t actually invited to the First Thanksgiving.

They had to gate-crash.

After the Wampanoag saved the Pilgrims’ collective frozen arses from starvation, the settlers (or the ones who were left) decided to celebrate with a three day feast. To which there is no evidence that they actually invited their saviours. According Edward Winslow, one of the participants in the first Thanksgiving, Chief Massasoit and ninety of his warriors showed up and were included in the feasting. But why were they there in the first place?

Most likely, some of the rowdier Pilgrims (obviously not the Puritan ones) fired a few shots into the air in celebration and the Wampanoag came rushing over under the silly impression that, you know, something was actually wrong.

Thus setting the stage for millions of awkward Thanksgiving dinners in the centuries to come. Some traditions are just worth keeping.

4. Actual Thanksgiving Dinners were celebrations of Indian massacres

Yes, you read that right.

The first actual “Thanksgiving Dinner” was held in 1637 by Governor William Bradford and it commemorated the annihilation of hundreds of men, women and children. The Pequot tribe had been reduced by disease to less than 2,000 individuals. In the summer of 1637, an Englishman from Massachusetts Bay Colony was killed by a Pequot warrior. Bradford was, of course angered, because how dare the Pequot kill people who were trampling what land remained the them. He resolved to take swift and devastating action.

A group of Englishmen led by John Underhill tracked down the Pequot tribe. As the Pequot celebrated their traditional Green Corn Dance, the English came down upon them from all sides, burning, hacking, and slaughtering all of them they could find. Those who escaped were later hunted down until the Pequot people were all but extinct.

Jesus says "Happy Thanksgiving!"

Jesus says “Happy Thanksgiving!”

Bradford describes the massacre in the “History of the Plymouth Plantation.”

“Those that scraped the fire were slaine with the sword; some hewed to peeces, others rune throw with their rapiers, so as they were quickly dispatchte, and very few escapted. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fyer, and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stincke and sente there of, but the victory seemed a sweete sacrifice, and they gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to inclose their enemise in their hands, and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enimie.”

Bradford estimates that 400 were killed, but the more accurate number is around 700.

After the Englishmen returned to the colony victorious, Bradford ordered a celebration feast, a Thanksgiving dinner to commemorate how the Lord had given the Indians over to the hands of their exterminators. The law he signed proclaimed that “This day forth shall be a day of celebration and thanksgiving for subduing the Pequots.” The Puritans were very adamant about following the Bible in every way. Unlike most modern Christians, this included all the Old Testament commands about massacring your enemies down to the last child. At least no one can say that the Puritans weren’t good Christians.

Following this incident, every celebration of a government ordained “Thanksgiving Dinner” was a celebration of a victory over one Indian tribe or another until Lincoln made it a federal holiday in 1863.

5. Thanksgiving Day is annually commemorated by many native tribes and their supporters as a national ‘Day of Mourning.’

Starting in 1970, the United American Indians of New England (UAINE) has protested the traditional celebrations of Thanksgiving from atop Cole’s Hill in Plymouth Massachusetts. UAINE involves itself with campaigns that seek to educate people on the racist stereotypes and historical revisionism that still permeates American education and social thought. They adamantly oppose the use of Native American references for sports teams and mascots, as well as involving themselves in protests for political prisoners such as Leonard Peltier.

In 2001, a plaque was set atop Cole’s Hill in Plymouth to commemorate the American Indians part in Thanksgiving and acknowledge that the history of European expansion is not as black and white as our schoolbooks make it out to be.

So what should we do?

What’s the point of all this? Many of you are most likely wondering if I’m using this article as a basis to advocate not celebrating Thanksgiving. Truthfully, no I am not. It would be intellectually dishonest of me to say that one should not celebrate a holiday if its roots are less than pristine. After all, I celebrate Christmas even though it’s a historically pagan holiday appropriated by the Christians. By celebrating Christmas I’m not celebrating the forceful conversion by the sword of millions of people to Christianity . In the same way, by celebrating Thanksgiving I am not condoning or glossing over the prolonged genocide of the American Indians.

I am celebrating what the holiday has evolved to mean. A time to give thanks for the many, many good things in my life. A time to be grateful for the people and loved ones I cherish and cannot replace. A time to look to the future and strengthen my resolve to show more compassion and love to those who are less well off than me. There are those who say we should spend every day like Thanksgiving. I disagree. There are some days I have to be selfish, or isolated, or focused on business. That’s part of human survival. To have a day set aside as a selfless day is not only a good reminder of what really matters, it’s a necessary recharge to get me through the rest of the holiday season and into the new year. For that reason, I love Thanksgiving.

But I am against whitewashing and misrepresenting history so that Thanksgiving is a pro-European expansionist propaganda celebration. I am against making it a celebration of American exceptionalism when in truth it’s a rather dark part of the nation’s history. And I’m absolutely against diminishing the sorrowful history of a real and fascinating group of individuals by reducing their history down to a caricature of ‘the noble savages.’

Happy Thanksgiving. I hope you celebrate with joy, with honesty, and with an open heart.

Enjoy your turkey. And afterwards, consider skipping the football game in favour of volunteering for the needy.

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The Ant and the Falling Sky: An Atheist Parable

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And as the Irish Atheist was sitting at the local Starbucks, a great crowd did gather around him. And there were many, both old and young, male and female, conservative and progressive, Evangelical and Catholic and of all manner of denominations. And there was also Oprah.

And the Evangelical Christians did hurl much abuse towards him and did say, “Thou art not an atheist! For there is no such creature as a ‘true’ atheist, for one cannot prove with utter certainty that there is no god!”

And the Irish Atheist did roll his eyes and return to eating his panini, ignoring the smug looks upon the faces of the mob.

And Oprah did say, “Thou art not a ‘true’ atheist, for thou can feel wonder and awe, and in Oprah’s opinion that is not what atheism is.”

And lo, the Irish Atheist did ignore her also, and did glare at her camera crew and twelve personal assistants.

And the progressive Christians did go on to say, in softer and more dulcet tones “Thou cannot be a ‘true’ atheist, for even thou hast said that there may be mysteries and forces that we do not understand or know, and therefore the term ‘agnostic’ is more appropriate.”

And so the Irish Atheist, with much eye rolling and sighing, did turn away from his laptop, and face the crowd that had gathered around him, and began to speak.

And when the Evangelical Christians did hear him speak in a strange dialect, they demanded to know whether he was in the country legally, and to see his green card, and whether he was taking jobs from real Americans, and if he was on welfare.

And after he had finally managed to control the derisive laughter, the Irish Atheist did begin again.

“There was an ant who lived in a large anthill, and his name was Jono.

“And Jono the ant did work hard, and raise his family with love and good discipline, and he always paid his taxes.

“But one day when Jono the ant was working in the fields, a mighty force did descend upon him and crush him, and his body was greatly broken, and he died.

“And many were witnesses to this event.

“And immediately many of the ants were sore afraid, and they believed that the great expanse of the sky was collapsing upon them. And they did fall upon their faces and cry out in loud voices for mercy. And they did smear mud of pleasurable scents upon their exoskeletons and did offer up berries and roots and the carcass of a small fly as offerings to the vengeful sky, so that they would not suffer the fate as Jono.

“And yet more ants did perish in the same manner as Jono, and there was great lamenting within the ant hill.

“After a time, there came to the ants a spider, who claimed that he alone could speak to the angry sky and prevent Jono’s fate from befalling the entire anthill. And the ants, being greatly fearful, did bring the spider into their home. And the spider forbade the offerings of roots and berries, insisting that they be given unto him so that he may better serve in his duties as the chosen messenger for the angry sky god. And the ants gave him all manner of food and drink, and did serve him with devotion, and even gave up their own children to be his sustenance.

“For the spider had assured them that Jono and all the rest who perished had gone to a mighty anthill deep within the earth, where every ant is a Queen and the berries were as large as boulders. And soon, all the ants were in thrall to the spider, and did worship and fear and love him as they did their own Queen.

“And yet more ants did perish in the same manner as Jono, but there was less lamenting than before, for the spider had reassured them and given them comfort, even as he devoured their food and their children.

“One day, an ant named Gally did see the mighty force, and did hear the prayers to the spider. But Gally was of a different sort of ant than the others, more curious and filled with wonder of the world, and not fear. And long had he chaffed under the rule of the spider and did long to bring freedom to his people.

“So Gally went out and did speak to many ants who had witnessed the great force. And he wrote down their accounts in the manner of ants, and did compare them. And he gathered a few other ants of similar mind around him and they did argue and debate and support each other. But it was not until Gally climbed a hill and saw the great force from afar that he and his companions were able to make a crude drawing and bring their findings before the Queen.

“They did tell the Queen that they had found that the great force was not the falling sky, nor was it the angry force that the spider claimed. Rather, they speculated that the force was another living being like themselves, much larger and more complex, but with no malice or ill will towards their community.

“And the spider was filled with wrath and did fall upon the ants, and consumed all of them. And only Gally escaped.

“But Gally was determined, and he did gather other ants around him, ants who had suffered at the hands of the spider and were eager to see him gone. And they did build a watchtower of twigs and pebbles and grass, a wonder unlike any that before had been seen. And in this way they were able to see the great force coming from afar and warn their friends of its coming. And in this way many ants were saved from the fate of Jono.

“And when the Queen and the ants saw how they had been deceived, they drove the spider from their hill in anger. But many of the ants followed the spider, for they did love him and they kept him fed and nourished and vowed that he would rule under the earth once again.

“And Gally was revered among the ants, for he was the first to discover the existence of the human being. And many ants did follow in his footsteps and learned much more about the humans, even able to discern their entire shape.

“But there was much that the ants would not and could not ever know. They would never understand that Jono had died because a human named Jon was rushing to the airport. There, he would ask the love of his life to marry him. And his act would give her the will and courage to fight through a terrible deployment in Afghanistan and return to the family who needed here. The ants cannot discover this, for such things as human love, and airports, and deployments, and Afghanistan are far beyond the capacity of knowledge that evolution has given to an ant.

“For you see,” said the Irish Atheist, “so am I like Gally and the ants. For there are mysteries that I cannot know, and wonders that are beyond my capacity. There may even be forces of knowledge and power that all human discovery has only borne a glimpse of. But lo, I am still an atheist. For even though there is much that I do not know, I have climbed the watchtower and learned that ‘gods’ are the creation of spiders.”

And the progressive Christians did say, “We do not agree with you, but we will except your labeling and not contest it.”

And Oprah did say nothing, for she had rushed off to prevent Tom Cruise from leaping upon her new upholstery.

And the Evangelical Christians did say, “Though shalt burn in hellfire and Satan shall roast your sinful flesh!”

And the Irish Atheist did turn away, for he had much work to do and he had tired of speaking in such pretentious and archaic tones. And he did find that his panini had grown cold and he was sorely irritated.

Photo Credit: zimagur.com

Why I’m not a Pope Francis Fanboy

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A little over a week ago, the Internet was buzzing with yet another “Pope Francis did something else adorable and kind!” story. In case you missed it, or you are once again too lazy to click on the link, Francis was giving a homily to a large congregation to celebrate the Year of Faith. A small group of children were invited to sit behind the Papal Throne. One of them, a small boy, wandered up to look at the Pope as he was speaking. Even as security attempted to remove him, Francis shooed them away and allowed the boy to stay. Eventually, he set the boy on his throne and continued with the homily. As expected, the world (or at least the large percentage of the world that regularly logs on to Buzzfeed) responded with an outpouring of affection for the newest pontiff.

Of course, this is only the latest in a long succession of anecdotes demonstrating Francis’s new policy of humbleness and service. Whether it’s washing the feet of a troubled Muslim girl or embracing a severely disfigured man, Francis and his publicity team are making all the right moves. And the world is noticing. After Benedict’s years of hard-lined conservatism and antagonism towards those the Church regularly rails against (not to mention his part in the cover-up of the child rape fiasco), Francis feels like a breath of fresh air. He kisses babies! He hangs out with poor people! He carries his own bag and lives in a small flat instead of the Papal apartments! He’s amazing! In a few short months, Francis has soared to become the most beloved religious figure since Mother Theresa.

And I just don’t get it.

I really don’t.

Because no matter what Francis does, how many babies he kisses, how many kind and sweet words he says, it doesn’t change the fact of what he is.

Pope Francis is the head of the largest criminal organisation on earth. And there is simply no getting around that. And that being understood, what praise is he worthy of? Why is it so admirable that Francis has a good PR team? What is so laudable about being able to play the part of a saint on earth? I don’t know, and so that’s why I find the reams of adoration being heaped on Francis so mind-bogglingly unbelievable.

I really don’t want to get back into what the Catholic Church did in Ireland at this time, because I’ve already written a couple posts concerning the Troubles and it’s too soon to hash out what the Catholic terrorist militias did to us again. I will, however, mention the existence of the Magdalene Laundries, where the Church enslaved and abused thousands of young women and girls as young as nine. And I will mention that Ireland one of the hardest countries hit by the child rape cover-up. Catholic priests such as Sean Fortune raped hundreds, perhaps thousands of young boys and the Catholic hierarchy covered it up, exposing more children to monsters. The coppers in the coffers of the cardinals were more important than the lives of hundreds of children.

This was not a ‘sex-abuse scandal.’ A scandal is when a politician is caught with a couple of prostitutes in a dirty water closet. What the Church is guilty of is the systematic, aggressive, and widespread cover up of the rape and molestation of thousands of young children across the world. It is guilty of placing child rapists in contact with children knowing that they were repeat offenders. It is guilty of destroying thousands of lives, indirectly causing hundreds of cases of suicide or deep psychological scaring. The corruption and cover up was traced through the ranks of Catholic authourity, right up to former Pope Benedict.

“But Pope Francis wasn’t tied to any of that!” his defenders will claim. “He’s done nothing but show love to his followers and to his detractors! He’s a good man!”

Well, so what?

Would you celebrate a mob boss who gives generously to a children’s hospital?

What about a preacher who encourages men in the church but beats his wife at home?

Is the man who runs a drug cartel above criticism if he doesn’t do drugs himself and never personally buys and sells them?

If your answer to the above questions is ‘no,’ then you cannot give Francis a free pass. As much as Christians try to watch each others backs (even if they’re only preparing to stab them at a later date) Francis is not above the law. Neither is the organisation he heads. The Catholic Church is not truly a church. It’s a huge criminal syndicate and paedophile protection ring, guilty of systematic murder, rape, child molestation, theft, and slavery around the world.

It’s not altogether surprising that Catholics rush to defend their Pope with such fervor. I have come across many Catholic writers and bloggers who diminish the crimes by labeling those who suffered at their hands – including the victims – as being hateful and anti-Christian. After all, the Catholic hierarchy is the absolute standard of moral truth in Catholicism. Things like child rape are a rather ugly smear on that moral authourity. Those of us who point out the Church’s complicity in protecting the child rapists in their ranks are accused of taking ‘pot shots’ or ‘cheap shots’ at the Church and at Francis. But what astonishes me is how many non-Catholics and even agnostics and atheists are leaping upon the Pope Francis bandwagon. Even the media is celebrating his “cleaning up the Catholic Church” even as another child abuse cover up comes out in the Twin Cities.

I don’t like it. I don’t agree with it. Maybe it’s part of growing up in fear of the Church’s cruelest adherents that makes me so skeptical of its gentlest face. But I have confess, I have nothing but awe at this clear and marvelous example of the power of Panem et Circenses. You probably remember that phrase from university philosophy or history classes. If not, you probably know it from The Hunger Games. The literal translation is “Bread and Circuses.” Food and entertainment, essentially. It refers to the tendency of the mob to adore whomever is giving them what they need and distracting them from their sorrows.

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Here comes Pope Katniss!

And that is exactly what Francis and his PR team is doing. And they are doing it. So. Well. They have gotten the Internet, that seductive yet ravenous harpy, on his side. And that is really saying something. Francis is giving all his adherents and his critics what they needed from the Church. Messages of acceptance, of hope, of new beginnings. And he is giving us what we want to see. Inspirational anecdotes of love and kindness that we can post on Internet message boards and coo over as the Catholic hierarchy grasps at the last straws of its power.

Don’t believe me? Look how quickly discussing the child abuse cover-up when Catholicism comes up has gone from ‘stating facts’ to ‘making cheap shots.’

Which is why I cannot defend Francis, cannot like him, cannot view his playacting as anything more than it is – an attempt to distract and distort the nature of what the Catholic Church is doing around the world. I do not believe that it is a coincidence that as the child rape cover-up continues to mount up, as a widely reviled and mocked Pope mysteriously steps down, a newer, gentler man steps up to salve the wounds. I am again astonished at how effective it has been.

What the Pope is doing is the equivalent of pouring baby oil on a gaping wound and saying ‘There, there.’

It’s abhorrent, and it’s wrong. Because you don’t stick a six-inch knife in someone, withdraw it three inches, and call it progress.

That’s not progress. It’s deception.

Disclaimer:

After my last post concerning Martin Luther, I thought it would be appropriate to balance it out with a post about Francis. The necessity of this post was apparent after I read a post on The American Jesus by Zach Hunt. Several parts of this article were taken from the comments I originally made there.