As the world prepares to celebrate the day known as Thanksgiving, few understand the true story behind this beloved holiday. Many Americans have learned a modified version of the real encounter which occurred between saints and strangers when the first Pilgrims and Indians sat down together for a harvest bounty. National Geographic network aired a two-part historical drama appropriately titled, Saints & Strangers which suggests a very different story.
The controversial production takes viewers back to the early 1620s. It aimed to depict the experience of sailing on the Mayflower from England in hopes of establishing the Plymouth Colony. It also scripts how Native American tribes, which were already settled, may have reacted to the influx of these “strangers.” Although the mini-series has caused waves it renders the satisfying feel of a traditional historical saga.
The Mayflower carried both mercenaries who had good reasons to get away from England and pursue their fortune in the New World and travelers who turned away from the Church of England to follow their rigidly separatist vision of religious freedom. What makes the documentary more than a well-told story is how Saints & Strangers manages the perspective of the Native American tribes, who were forced to decide whether to accommodate the settlers or dispose of them.
The feast between the Indians and settlers, identified in the movie as Saints & Strangers, was considered the very first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colony. The Pilgrim Hall Museum, located in Plymouth, states the festivities for this event was never meant to be an annual occurrence. During the celebration, they dined on many of the foods Americans focus on every Thanksgiving such as turkey, duck, fruit and pumpkin.
Declared a national holiday in America, it is celebrated annually on the fourth Thursday in November. Thanksgiving, as it has come to be, is mostly observed as a day to give thanks in return for the many blessings which have been received all year. Americans gather together for a day of family, feasting and football. According to Saints & Strangers, today’s Thanksgiving celebrations would not be recognizable to attendees of the original 1621 harvest meal.
The name Thanksgiving initially involved a host of religious dedication with many hours spent in church. This tradition began long before the notorious encounter of saints and strangers in Massachusetts. As early as 1519, the Spanish celebrated Thanksgiving in St. Augustine, Florida. Newer sources reference a harvest dinner which took place in the 1590s in Santa Fe, New Mexico with American Indians, missionaries, and Spanish settlers. In 1618, at the Berkeley Hundred settlement in Virginia a feast took place with the English who gave thanks for their survival and safety. Then came the 1621 harvest feast in Plymouth, Massachusetts; this is the big dinner remembered every November.
In America, an annual Thanksgiving proclamation has been issued by every president since Abraham Lincoln who declared the last Thursday of November as “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise.” President Obama’s proclamation concluded with these words:
As we gather in our communities and in our homes, around the table or near the hearth, we give thanks to each other and to God for the many kindnesses and comforts that grace our lives. Let us pause to recount the simple gifts that sustain us, and resolve to pay them forward in the year to come.
For those that believed the first Thanksgiving consisted of such sentimental images of Pilgrims and Native Americans sitting down together at a well-stocked table, Saints & Strangers proved to be eye-opening. It purposefully depicts the clash of cultures, beliefs and expertise that went on to influence the founding of this great nation. The documentary does not downplay the ways in which the aggression, cooperation, and betrayal of the 1620s went on to entrench itself in the twisted DNA of American life.
The first Thanksgiving, which followed the encounter of saints and strangers, pales in comparison to many of today’s celebrations. The mini-series which is titled Saints & Strangers aired on the National Geographic network this past Sunday and Monday, but can still be seen OnDemand. The documentary was not shown to take away from the current day of “thanksgiving and praise” but to enlighten on the holiday’s true origin.
By Cherese Jackson (Virginia)
St. Louis Post Dispatch: TV review: Raw new look at Pilgrims in Nat Geo’s ‘Saints & Strangers’
Indian Country: ‘Saints & Strangers’: The Real Story of That First Thanksgiving?
Top Image Courtesy of Bill Ilott – Flickr License
Inside Image Courtesy of Lucas Richarz – Flickr License
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