George Will

``Twas founded be th' Puritans to give thanks f'r bein' presarved fr'm th' Indyans, an' ... we keep it to give thanks we are presarved fr'm th' Puritans.''

-- Finley Peter Dunne

WASHINGTON -- But the Pilgrims who bequeathed to us Thanksgiving were not Puritans, at least as we use that term to denote busybodies bent on extirpating dissipation, meaning fun. Excessive merriment was not a pressing problem for the half of the Mayflower's 102 passengers who survived the first few months in wintry Massachusetts.

True, the Pilgrims left Holland for America in part because the Dutch had too much fun, even on Sunday, when the Pilgrims' services would last four hours, the congregation standing throughout. And two Pilgrim brothers did quarrel because one said the other was ``blinded, bewitched and besotted'' by his wife, a ``bouncing girl who wore whalebones in her breast, an excessive deal of lace and a showish hat.''

But the Pilgrims went to America, writes Godfrey Hodgson, not to become American but to remain English and devout. Rather than tarry among the licentious Dutch, they would risk life among Indians who, they had heard, flayed prisoners with scallop shells. Soon a Pilgrim was instructing Indians in the Ten Commandments, ``all of which they harkened unto with great attention, and liked well of; only the seventh commandment they excepted against, thinking there were many inconveniences in it, that a man should be tied to one woman.''

Hodgson is a British journalist and historian. His ``cmakes clear that the Pilgrims embarked on the angry north Atlantic in storm season not because they wanted to impose their strict ways on anyone, but to avoid being bothered by anyone.

It was not until the Cold War in the 1950s that American historians, seizing upon John Winthrop's sermon (``we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us''), suggested that the Pilgrims pioneered ``American exceptionalism'' by adopting a universal mission to cure this fallen world of corruptions. An American cold warrior, Ronald Reagan, would, 30 years later, wield that ``city upon a hill'' trope while ending the Cold War.

The first Thanksgiving feast involved a few dozen English settlers and perhaps a few hundred Native Americans who, Hodgson reports, ``protected themselves from cold, insect bites and so on with a thick layer of fat or grease. This may have made them smelly at close quarters though hardly smellier than the Europeans, who changed their clothes rarely.'' The dinner probably did not include turkey, which was rarer in Massachusetts than in England, where it had been introduced from the Mediterranean, hence its name.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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