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Crossing the great religious divide through feasting

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Thanksgiving.

Few words conjure a richer image than that of a table groaning beneath the weight of a tremendous spread. Few holidays are so universally and so similarly celebrated across the United States.

Regardless of religion, nationality, ethnicity or region, most Americans gorge on Thanksgiving, and they do so in remarkably homogeneous fashion. Specific recipes and ingredients may differ from family to family, but almost everyone partakes in some kind of a feast on the fourth Thursday in November.

But what does it really mean?

According to two accounts, the event recalled as the first Thanksgiving took place in 1621, most likely in early October. A particularly bountiful harvest inspired the frugal Puritans of Plymouth Colony (the first illegal immigrants to the United States) and their Wampanoag Indian neighbors to celebrate.

Remarking on the festivities, Edward Winslow wrote:

"Our harvest being gotten in, our governour sent foure men on fowling, that so we might after a speciall manner rejoyce together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labours; they foure in one day killed as much fowle, as with a little helpe beside, served the Company almost a weeke, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Armes, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoyt, with some ninetie men, whom for three dayes we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deere, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governour, and upon the Captaine and others.

"And although it be not always so plentifull, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so farre from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty."

Although such a repast would not have been uncommon for either the Indians or the Puritans, it would not simply have been another big meal, either. For both groups, feasting's cultural meanings reached more deeply.

Winslow's word choice indicates as much. He wrote, "whom ... we feasted," describing the Indians' participation, suggesting the event had an active dimension beyond the consumption of the food itself.

This is no accident. Within both the Wampanoag and Puritan worlds, feasts marked significant events that reinforced ties with the divine and reflected social relations. Although we might not expect Indians and fundamentalist Christians of the 17th century to have this sort of cultural congruency across their deep religious divide, they were able to make sense of each other when it came to this event.

Even before they came to the New World, Puritan separatists sanctioned days of Praise and Thanksgiving, usually in combination with days of Humiliation and Fasting. Both linked events in the corporeal world to the divine.

Taking misfortune as a sign of their God's displeasure, the Puritans fasted to purify themselves and to repair their relationship with their Lord. Along the same lines, happenings that proved their God looked upon them favorably sparked celebratory days of Praise and Thanksgiving.

Although the feast of 1621 predated the first official Thanksgiving, the event's ritual meaning would have been the same even without official sanction. Members of the community necessarily saw their feast as a tribute to their God, who had provided a bountiful harvest as the separatists began their lives in the New World.

The Wampanoag Indians who shared in the festivities likely understood the event similarly. Throughout the Americas during prehistory, feasting served as an important ritual practice in two ways. In the act of feasting, indigenous groups gave thanks to their respective gods of rain, sun, sky and earth for the fertility of their lands.

In addition to these honorific aspects, the actual ritual would re-enact social relations and structures of power. Eating and drinking often occurred in a particular order, determined by the host. In most cases, respected members of society were invited to eat or drink first, with successive invitations proceeding according to rank in society. Consequently, feasting shored up relations not only between the people and the divine, but also between the living members of the community.

In these two ways, the feast of 1621 offered a rare moment of nearly complete cultural congruence between the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag Indians. Both groups undoubtedly were eager to thank their respective gods for the especially abundant harvest.

The Puritans had survived a difficult journey, a problematic arrival and a serious struggle to survive their first full year in Massachusetts, one that they would not have endured without Wampanoag assistance. For the Wampanoag, too, times had been difficult, as a major epidemic had decimated their population even before they had to contend with strangers following the Mayflower's arrival.

Socially, there would have been a similar symmetry. As a matter of course, the colonists would have sat down to eat in rank order, and would have taken food accordingly. Winslow's description notes the presence of Massasoit, "their greatest King" and 90 Wampanoag men, clearly an elite group.

Both sides engaged in displays of masculine valor: The colonists engaged in an exercise of arms, and the Wampanoag hunted deer. The mutual recognition of social hierarchy is evident as Winslow relates that upon their return with the kill, the Wampanoag gave one deer to the governor, another to the captain, and the rest to "others," presumably of similar status.

Not to be lost in these details is the feast itself. Despite the larger context of violence and contestation between the two groups, they were able to share in a bountiful harvest, eating and reveling together. To sit with a neighbor, one with whom you sometimes have clashed fiercely, and share in a meal represents at least the possibility for a more harmonious existence.

Although the event never was repeated, it is interesting to note that President Abraham Lincoln declared the first national Thanksgiving under similar circumstances, in 1863, during the hardest days of the Civil War.

Our own Thanksgiving festivities each year, whether consciously or not, constitute a ritual re-enactment of this past. They represent our collective cultural memory and even some of the older traditions. Although not often intentionally, we still tend to sit in rank order. The head of the family sits at the head of the table, empowered to carve and distribute the bird, and children sit at a kiddie table.

The most important element of our Thanksgiving remains the feast. And not just the eating, but the display of abundance, the sharing of food and the coming together of family and friends to celebrate the successful completion of another cycle of nature.

In this way, Thanksgiving helps us remember our individual and collective histories, and gives us hope that despite our many differences, we may yet come together in even larger groups to celebrate of the fruits of our world.

-- David Torres-Rouff

In addition to writing for Appetite, David Torres-Rouff is a visiting instructor at Colorado College. He will complete his Ph.D. in U.S. history this June.

  • Crossing the great religious divide through feasting

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