Over the Hill

Thanksgiving celebrates a special moment in America’s history

President Barack Obama pardons the National Thanksgiving Turkey, Abe, in 2015 during a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden.
President Barack Obama pardons the National Thanksgiving Turkey, Abe, in 2015 during a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden. The Associated Press

Halloween was just last week. Halloween decorations were everywhere for almost a month. And now I’m seeing Christmas decorations and ads.

But what about Thanksgiving Day? We hardly notice that it’s just two weeks away. Christmas and Halloween get all the glory.

That’s probably because Halloween and Christmas are moneymakers. They sell stuff and generate lots of advertising.

We almost forget that Thanksgiving is a national holiday, not just a day off. Thanksgiving Day celebrates the bravery of a small band of pilgrims.

Those 102 pilgrims left England because they were being persecuted for their religious beliefs. On Sept. 6, 1620, they set sail for America to start a colony. They traveled in a 106-foot sailing ship named the Mayflower. It also carried a crew of 30 and the supplies for starting the colony.

More than two months later, they finally dropped anchor in a sheltered spot off the coast of what is now Massachusetts. Then they spent more than a month looking for a good settlement location. The colonists didn’t actually start building houses until Dec. 21, and winters are cold in Massachusetts.

The houses the pilgrims built had walls made with split sticks woven between other sticks stuck in the ground, and then slathered with a mix of mud, manure, straw and sand. The Pilgrims planned to build 19 houses that winter. They only managed to build seven, along with four larger common houses.

The houses were built on one of two hills, which had been the former location of a Native American settlement. That settlement had been wiped out by an epidemic of smallpox or leptospirosis. The germs were probably brought to America by European fur traders, fishermen or explorers who had been visiting the area for almost 100 years.

The pilgrims also had their own health problems. Their flimsy houses provided insufficient shelter. Some still lived on board the ship in unhealthy conditions. And the pilgrims’ limited diet afflicted many with scurvy. That winter, nearly half of the colonists died.

But the 53 survivors persevered and improved the colony. They also made friends with the neighboring Native Americans and signed a treaty with them. The Native Americans gave them advice and showed them how to fertilize their crops with dead fish.

So when October arrived that year, they had much to give thanks for, and they celebrated what we now call the first Thanksgiving Day. Actually, it was a three-day harvest festival. The menu included wild turkeys, waterfowl and fish. Ninety Native Americans also attended and provided five deer.

The Plymouth Colony was the second successful English-speaking colony in America. (The first was Jamestown, founded in Virginia in 1607.) But nowadays, we tolerate the cheapening of Thanksgiving by that corny custom of presidents pardoning turkeys on TV.

Phil Dirkx’s column is special to The Tribune. He has lived in Paso Robles for more than five decades, and his column appears here every week. Reach Dirkx at 238-2372 or phild2008@sbcglobal.net.

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