The holiday season is upon us and we’re counting down to Thanksgiving. I like Thanksgiving; for a major holiday, it remains relatively straightforward and uncomplicated. It’s comparatively free of the cumbersome traditions, frenetic activities, and crippling expenditures that come with some holidays (I’m looking at you, Christmas!), big stressors that can get in the way of fundamental enjoyment, not to mention spiritual gratification.
Granted, Thanksgiving does have its own daunting potential for stress – travel and logistical chaos, inter-personal and family drama, intensive food prep and consumption, hours of digestive recovery, and overwhelming kitchen clean-up! But the day can also be celebrated with a simple shared meal, quiet reflection and rest, even solitude or a private getaway, and when it all comes together well, Thanksgiving can be deeply meaningful and spiritually strengthening.
Our celebration of the Thanksgiving feast as a national historical event also has its baggage, a mythology of Pilgrims and Native Americans that is rooted in history but that has grown over time to barely resemble the actual event. As is nearly always the case with history, the truth turns out to be far more complicated and vastly more interesting than the myth. This year, pick up one of the following books to help you sort out the real story of the Mayflower Pilgrims and broaden your understanding of our country’s fascinating history.
“Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War” by Nathaniel Philbrick details the history of the Pilgrims as religious Separatists in England and as political refugees in Holland, then follows them through their voyage on the Mayflower, the settlement and early years of the Plymouth colony, and the meeting of European settlers and Native Americans. Philbrick adds depth to what we know of familiar historical figures like William Bradford, Chief Massasoit, Squanto, Miles Standish, Priscilla Mullins, John Alden, Edward Winslow, and numerous secondary characters, revealing unexpected and surprising historical details.
In “Making Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World,” another richly detailed history, author and Englishman Nick Bunker writes about the Mayflower Pilgrims as Englishmen themselves, and places them in the context of the political world in which they lived. An exhaustively detailed recounting of the first years of settlement, this book tells a stirring tale of “indomitable courage, religious faith, commercial ambition, international rivalry, and domestic politics” (Publishers Weekly).
If you only have time for a short read and want a more condensed recounting of the Mayflower Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving, Glenn Alan Cheney has hit the high points and given a broad overview in his well-researched and -organized history of 1620-1621, “Thanksgiving: The Pilgrims’ First Year in America.” An easy-to-read and enjoyable page-turner, it is nevertheless written in evocative, descriptive prose. As one reviewer said, the book is “full of surprising information, and sympathetic to the humanity of all the participants.”
“The Mayflower Papers: Selected Writings of Colonial New England,” edited by Nathaniel and Thomas Philbrick, is a compilation of 17th century primary source material about the Pilgrims, the Mayflower voyage, and the founding of the Plymouth Colony. It contains “Of Plymouth Plantation” by Governor William Bradford, the seminal first-person account of the early days of the settlement. Written in the Elizabethan English of the times, it is not easy reading but it nonetheless is a detailed, emotional recounting of an enterprise that took immense courage, devotion, and fortitude. In addition, this anthology contains “Mourt’s Relation,” an account of the colony’s first year in New England and the original story of the first Thanksgiving celebrated in autumn 1621, and “Good News from New England,” a continuation of the history, both by Edward Winslow.
“The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony” by leading Plymouth archaeologist James Deetz is a social history that is especially strong in its descriptions of the daily lives and society of the colony. Drawing on the archaeological evidence, it touches on crime, food, sexual and social relationships, legalities, and material culture, and upends many of our misconceptions about Pilgrim society.