Thursday, November 23, 2006

Our Great North American Holiday

Sara Robinson

One of the religious right's firmest convictions is that America was established by God for a special destiny in the history of humankind. We are a uniquely blessed nation -- first among the Elect in power and strength -- because the Puritans alone had the good sense to consecrate this land to the Protestant God from the very first year, a consecration symbolized every year when we renew it at Thanksgiving.

Our glory, they believe, will endure only as long as we continue to maintain our devotion to God -- which is, they insist, why it's so very important that we get over this wall-of-separation thing and openly submit to Biblical law. If we don't accept God's special choosing, he may withdraw it (as he did with the Israelites), and America will be doomed. In fundamentalist homes, Thanksgiving is a celebration of that compact, an affirmation of America's singular destiny as a Chosen Nation.

Poputonian gives a brief rundown of the history of Thanksgiving in North America that got me thinking some about this. Thanksgiving has become a fraught and complicated issue at our house since we moved to Canada, which celebrates the same holiday on the second Monday in October. Some years, we've had two Thanksgivings. Other years, we've had none. (Today, the kids are in school and going to their dad's, and Mr. R is taking a final exam, so I'm on my own, and birdless.) It's never been my favorite holiday to begin with, so our haphazard observance patterns have reflected that as well. But the struggle to make new meaning out of the holiday has also given me a much wider view than most Americans have of where our own Thanksgiving fits into the grand scheme of history.

In the summer of 2005, I spent a month in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Cuernavaca's a gorgeous little city, famous for a year-round spring climate so delicious that Montezuma built his summer palace there. In 1519, Cortez conquered the city, razed the old palace, and built his own castle on the ruins. (Diego Rivera later painted what may be his greatest mural in the castle's loggia.) A few blocks away, there's a huge adobe cathedral that's been standing there since 1533. It may well be the oldest Christian church in the western hemisphere.

To put this in perspective: The church and castle in Cuernavaca had already been standing for nearly a century when the Pilgrims had their little dinner party in 1620.

In fact, by that time, the Spaniards had pretty much conquered Mexico, and were making strong inroads into what is now the American southwest. Pop notes that Pedro Menendez de Aviles founded St. Augustine, Florida in 1565. Farther inland, Don Juan Onate declared the first Mexican Thanksgiving somewhere just south of El Paso in 1598 -- the same year he founded the city of Santa Fe. By 1620, when New England was just seeing its first Europeans, Santa Fe and St. Augustine were both thriving American cities of a thousand souls or more.

The party was already rolling in the Great White North as well. The first Canadian Thanksgiving was declared in 1578 by English explorer Martin Frobisher, who formally proclaimed a Feast of Thanksgiving for his party's safe arrival in Newfoundland. By 1607, the French explorers living in Acadia with Samuel de Champlain formed "The Order of Good Cheer," whose regular feasts of thanks often included their Huron and Algonquin neighbors. (Two hundred years later, following the American Revolution, these feasts also included banished Loyalist refugees, who contributed their own American foods and customs to the Canadian table.)

When you look at the full scope of North American history, the image of Thanksgiving as a holiday of U.S. exceptionalism becomes much harder to sustain. The Pilgrims were not the first European settlers, as many Americans believe. (Cortez's Spanish troops were.) They weren't even the first English settlers (several English colonies had been doing very well in Canada for decades). Plymouth was not the first European city in the New World (Cuernavaca would have a decent claim there); nor even in America (as anyone from either St. Augustine or Santa Fe will tell you). And theirs was far from the first Thanksgiving. In truth, they were latecomers to a long-standing party that had already become a New World tradition from Montreal to Mexico City.

Living in Canada has given me a bigger view of Thanksgiving. It's not a holiday celebrating American uniqueness and destiny, but rather one that connects us in history to all the people of this continent -- those who came on the boats from Spain, then France, then England to brave a world they could not imagine; those who met the boats and lost the world as they knew it; those who have come in the centuries since from every corner of the planet; and those who share the continent with America now, and are as bound to her fate as surely as we are bound to the brothers and sisters we're feasting with today.

We may celebrate it on different days; but the reasons for our gratitude are as recognizably familiar as the menu and the faces. Our strength is not in America's (or this holiday's) singularity, but rather their universality. Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.

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