The lost mysteries of Thanksgiving

Summary: Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday, whose history is rich with insights. Unfortunately, we ignore these – stripping away its depth and mystery. Here is a start to regaining what we have lost and making Thanksgiving special again.

The First Thanksgiving
“The First Thanksgiving” by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris (circa 1913).

I have spent a decade attempting to find the root causes of our weakness. One such is that we have lost touch with our history, and are like plants cut from their roots. Good and bad, we are the products of our past – the decisions made by previous generations of Americans. They built a great nation, one with the potential to help America lead humanity into a better future. I doubt if we can do so without recapturing our past. Thanksgiving is a great day to begin, with so much to teach us.

The standard Thanksgiving story is half fiction. Conservatives have ladled on more fictional elements, as in Rush Limbaugh’s ‘The True Story of Thanksgiving.” It’s about capitalism vs. socialism! This politically useful narrative has been debunked many times. My two favorites …

But there are deeper levels to the Thanksgiving story, rich with insights about our strange history. To better understand Thanksgiving, start with Scott Alexander’s brilliant “The Story Of Thanksgiving Is A Science-Fiction Story.” He says that “the proper genre for Thanksgiving is science-fiction.” Here is his introduction to the story.

“Mr. S, an ordinary American, is minding his own business outside his East Coast home when he is suddenly abducted by short, large-headed creatures from another world. They bring him to their ship and voyage across unimaginable distances to an alien empire both grander and more horrible than he could imagine. The aliens have godlike technologies, but their society is dystopian and hivelike. Enslaved at first, then displayed as a curiosity, he finally wins his freedom through pluck and intelligence. Despite the luxuries he enjoys in his new life, he longs for his homeworld. He befriends a local noble who tells him that the aliens in fact send ships to his world on a regular basis, quietly scouting and seeking resources while the inhabitants remain blissfully unaware of these incursions. He gets passage on such an expedition.

“Before his ship gets far, he is abducted and sold into slavery again, only to be rescued by a sect of alien priests who believe he may hold the key to saving his entire race. They are kind to him and ask him to stay, but when he refuses they reluctantly arrange his passage home.

“Yet when he returns, Mr. S finds a postapocalyptic wasteland utterly unlike the world he left. America is empty, its great cities gone, a few survivors fighting for scraps among the ruins. 95% of the population is dead, slain by a supervirus unlike any doctors have ever seen. …He finds the site where his hometown once stood. There is nothing. …”

The amazing aspect of this story is that it tells the real story of early 17th century New England. For the history, see Charles C. Mann’s superbly told account in the Smithsonian Magazine: “Native Intelligence” – “The Indians who first feasted with the English colonists were far more sophisticated than you were taught in school; but that wasn’t enough to save them.”

These are stories well-worth reading on Thanksgiving. But few will. Instead of history, we now prefer equally bogus tales that flatter the political interests of our elites.

"Interview of Samoset with the Pilgrims", book engraving, 1853.
“Interview of Samoset with the Pilgrims” (1853).

A fine example is “An American Thanksgiving Story Without Any Heroes” by Tyler Cowen (prof economics at George Mason U) at Bloomberg – “When it comes to the treatment of Native Americans, the U.S. doesn’t have much to be proud of.” A superficial look places it in the popular “my ancestors weren’t as wonderful as I am” genre. We stand on their shoulders and criticize their lowly views. How sad that the pilgrims had the same “might makes right” ethics as almost everybody did in the 17th century.

More interesting is that a conservative like Cowen joins this popular leftist narrative. It shows how both Left and Right seek to delegitimize the Republic. Neither has any interest in our traditions, or the love of self-rule and liberty that were their finest expressions.

We have great wealth, so few Americans have experienced hunger (two-thirds of Americans are over-weight or obese, with a higher fraction among the poor). We should give thanks for what we might lose.  This year, let’s give thanks for our political regime and the Constitution on which it rests. From these things have come our domestic peace and prosperity. They were unearned gifts to us from previous generations of Americans. Let’s do whatever necessary to preserve them for future Americans.

For More Information

Ideas! For Holiday shopping ideas see my recommended books and films at Amazon. Also, see a story about our future: “Ultra Violence: Tales from Venus.

Other articles about the history of Thanksgiving.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about ways to reform our politics, and especially these about Thanksgiving…

  1. Looking back on USMC thanksgivings, reminding us of things for which we should be grateful.
  2. Let’s give thanks for America’s luck, and try to deserve it!
  3. For Thanksgiving, Walmart shows us the New America.
  4. Make this a special Thanksgiving: take a first and easy step to reforming America.
  5. Lies about Thanksgiving have consequences. That we’re so easily fooled has even more.
  6. Have a different Thanksgiving conversation with the family about politics.
  7. Debunking a right-wing myth about Thanksgiving.
  8. Another reason to give thanks on Thanksgiving.

Learn about the lost foundation of America

Faith of Our Founding Fathers
Available at Amazon.

Faith of Our Founding Fathers

By Tim LaHaye, an evangelical minister and author of 85 books (fiction and nonfiction).

From the publisher …

“What faith did our founding fathers truly believe and practice in their daily lives, and what does it really matter for us? Were they God-fearing, Bible-believing Christians or simply enlightened Deists, Transcendentalists, and Unitarians?

“Today the debate rages on, becoming a polarizing cultural issue, the outcome of which will lead to a vastly different nation in the years ahead. This probing study dovers the key points.

    • Examines the facts that have created debate for years among educators, scholars, and historians
    • Studies the intimate papers, diaries, and letters of the founders themselves
    • Helps solve this mystery of our nation’s past so that we can best guide its future.

“Meticulously documented, Faith of Our Founding Fathers by best-selling author Tim LaHaye details the Christian principles of these early Americans, and notes how the argument for the separation of church and state has led us to the vast secularization of our culture. Studying the original writings of those who shaped this nation will help Christians present the case for renewing the former vision for this great country.”

9 thoughts on “The lost mysteries of Thanksgiving”

  1. The noble savage or the savage colonist meme misses the most important part: human interaction with humans. Both civilizations had to deal with nature; and at that stage of development both followed might makes right. Larry you are correct that both sides want to see their enemies and not themselves as inhuman. A really vulgar and unuseful way to appreciate, not only US history, but mankind’s history.

    An interesting side note: From my point of view, one of the most interesting aspects of the progressive lefts’ control of large cities is the increase in crime from tribalism. To me it underscores everything wrong with their experimentation: humans have been here before and it is NOT pretty.


  2. My family’s take on Thanksgiving is thus:

    Glad to see the relatives (we very rarely actually see each other)
    Glad to discuss the story of the last 6 months of our lives with each other, face to face
    Use those discussions to figure out how we personally can do better (morally, physically, and financially) in the next year

    But most families are not as analytical as mine!

    Returning to the topic at hand of the Thanksgiving day tradition. I doubt that we can possibly find the original meaning of Thanksgiving. Peoples and cultures have changed too much for us to be able to recreate the “depth and mystery” of the moment.

    Another factor you need to remember that the early Puritans were driven out of two countries for the depth of their beliefs that others felt were (at best) inaccurate and misguided. The history of the Puritan domination of the Massachusetts Bay Colony is filled with internal disagreements, most of which ended in ways that would not be acceptable in today’s society (public whippings and forced expulsion being two classic examples). Wikipedia provides a very basic description of the era.

    As for “the root causes of our weakness,” that is easy; finding a solution is the hard part. The root cause of our weakness is that our society is encountering new technologies, new concepts, and new ways of influencing people faster than it can adapt.

    For example, megalomaniacs and monomaniacs have found a potent way to spread their influence via the Internet and can now find each other more quickly and work together or against each other more publicly. Unfortunately, I do not have a single good idea on how society, as a whole, can deal with this trend without becoming a notably less free society. I have put forward some bad ideas in the past, which you kindly shot full of holes.

    One of the side effects is shown in the link below:

    This is hardly the first time such a situation has occurred (the Renaissance comes to mind as an early example) and it will not be the last. Usually societies either find something that works, at least for a while, (like the Soviets attempting to ban all Western culture and technology) or fall apart into sub-units that can have less diversity and can deal more easily with the problem (like the Church of England expelling the Puritans). As yet, the US has not found any acceptable solution.

    The most recent time when the US was under such pressure was in the 1890’s, mostly caused by the corporate excesses of the Gilded Age and immigration. The solution that time was to cut off immigration and Teddy Roosevelt broke up the corporations and became known as the “Trust Buster.”

    It is possible (but not likely) that the flow of new technologies/ideas will slow down until we can handle it again. As the pressure builds and the technology/idea race accelerates, we WILL find a solution but at what cost?

  3. Raymond Reichelt

    Although Thanksgiving is now a secular holiday connected to the foundation myths of the American Republic, it began and for many remains a religious celebration of gratitude. Acknowledging the role of the Diety in our good fortune should induce a little necessary humility. I think that humility and gratitude are necessary for good mental health, if only to limit self congratulatory pride.

    Happy Thanksgiving to all my American friends from north of the border. Enjoy and be grateful.

    1. Raymond: “Acknowledging the role of the Deity in our good fortune should induce a little necessary humility. I think that humility and gratitude are necessary for good mental health, if only to limit self congratulatory pride.”

      I really like the concept but, sadly, Americans are not normally given to humility these days. We sure could use a LOT more of it!

      1. Pluto,

        “Americans are not normally given to humility these days”

        Humility is not and has never been common. It was one of the few traits attributed to Moses (Numbers 12:3), which tells you what the OT authors thought about its frequency in the public.

  4. I’ve had 50ish family thanksgivings and pilgrims and indians were never mentioned once.

    Celebrate family and be thankful.

    1. Jason,

      I’ve had 50s family Christmas’ and Santa was never mentioned once. But that does not mean Santa was not in our minds, or an important part of the context for the holiday.

      Many of these cultural milestones are a big part of whom we are – even if we don’t talk about them often. If they are destroyed, we will change – no matter how nice your family is. Nobody lives in a castle, isolated from society.

  5. To fully understand history, or the world for that matter, you must appreciate complexity. But that requires effort. It is taking the harder path. And who wants to do that?

    At the same time, history is mostly person A or group A doing bad stuff to person A or group B to gain advantage. To fully embrace this reality is not exactly life-affirming. So we have myths, which are basically pretty lies told with a purpose. Hence peaceable, god-loving European refugees and helpful Indians coming together to share bounty and give thanks. How lovely. Group hug.

    Myths have value, though, because they contain implied ideals, and generally speak to our better selves. The beneficent myth of Thanksgiving is a positive lesson. Our society is awash in ingratitude, a poisonous thing. We should be thankful.To give thanks is an expression of humility, an acknowledgment that one is blessed. Thankfulness leads to kindliness. And as Martha Stewart says, “That’s a good thing.”

    IMO, the upending of aboriginal America was inevitable. Fifteen millennia of isolation was going to end one way or the other. Had the invasion not come from the East, it would eventually have come from the West, and I highly doubt that an Asian invasion would have been any kinder or gentler.

    1. Scott,

      “the upending of aboriginal America was inevitable.”

      I agree. The mega-plagues made the conquest of the Western Hemisphere easy for Europeans. But even in Africa, whose high levels of biological activity prevented European power from penetrating far from the coast until the late 19th century, fell eventually.

      I cannot imagine a counter-factual history which ended well for the natives anywhere.

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