Pilgrims weren’t turkeys that first Thanksgiving.

Close your eyes and take a slow, luxuriant breath. Savor the aroma from the pumpkin pie. The smell of the turkey in the oven. Mother, or Grandmother maybe, is singing a familiar hymn softly to herself as she fills a serving tray with homemade mashed potatoes, and the lyrics she murmurs are reassuring: “We gather together to pass the French dressing.”
Yes, the family has indeed gathered together, spreading out from the kitchen to the dining room to the den. From one of those rooms there is the comforting sound of a football game on television, the announcers’ voices ensuring that although the family has assembled, no one will have to speak to one another and the holiday thus will remain harmonious.
Thanksgiving has come a long way since 1621.
About the only thing that’s the same is that we still drink lots of beer. Make no mistake, we don’t drink as much as the pilgrims did. If the pilgrims look a little surly in our minds, it’s probably because there was nothing left in the keg.
Some of the changes, of course, are obvious. For example, football is now televised. The pilgrims hadn’t even invented the Etch-a-Sketch yet to give them something to look at instead of their in-laws. And there’s the Macy’s parade with its line of giant, inflatable animals. It would be centuries before we would think up Underdog and Snoopy and SpongeBob, and then figure out how to make them the size of dirigibles.
Just for the record, the main food at that first Thanksgiving wasn’t even turkey. The historical records suggest that the biggest part of the menu was venison. Massasoit and his fellow braves brought five deer to the celebration.
And unlike the pilgrims, we don’t waste a whole lot of time during the day being thankful. We take our spectacular amounts of plenty for granted, while those pilgrims who survived that first awful winter — the “starving time,” Gov. William Bradford would call it — were taking great pains to be thankful for the fact they had neither frozen to death nor starved to death nor died of some horrible wasting illness. (The especially prescient among them might also have been grateful that they were living many centuries before the television program, “Pants-Off, Dance-Off.”)
And so say what you will about the pilgrims, my sense is they probably threw a pretty darn good Thanksgiving. Sure, they look a little dour in those dark colors, and I am wary of anyone, man or woman, who puts a buckle on his hat. But their Thanksgiving was a big tent in which everyone was invited. I like that. And they were legitimately grateful for the small blessings that marked their lives suddenly, not the least of which was their health. According to Bradford’s narrative of the experiment we call the Plimoth Plantation, there were barely a half-dozen people healthy enough to care for the sick and the dying some moments that first winter. Roughly one in two pilgrims died.
Sometimes we forget that the vast majority of the planet doesn’t have the bounty we do, or that most nations don’t have even the luxury of deciding which prescription drugs should be a part of a Medicaid program and which ones should not. Sometimes we forget there are hungry and homeless and people who are very, very cold right here in Vermont.
The pilgrims weren’t perfect: I, for one, will never forgive them for leaving us a priggish work ethic that precludes me from ever sleeping late. But they got two things right: They were thankful for what they had. And they made sure that the whole neighborhood came to their party.
Those are legacies worth remembering this coming Thursday — and throughout this holiday season.
Happy Thanksgiving.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on November 19, 2006.)

Chris Bohjalian
Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of eighteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Guest Room. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, and The Double Bind.

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