Mental Flossing: Thanksgiving Has No Religious Origins, and other Factoids

Everyone knows the innate dread of visiting the dentist. With each visit to the tooth doctor we’re met with the same basic set of questions . . . followed by the same set of lectures.

Dentist: “Are you brushing after every meal?”

You: “Well I, uh . . .”

Dentist: “You really should be brushing after every meal.”

You: “Well I, uh . . .”

Dentist: “Ok, well your gums are bleeding a little. Are you brushing your gums?

You: “Well I, uh . . .”

Dentist: “Are you at LEAST flossing?”

You: “Well I, uh . . . ”

After a while you start feeling a little like the supporting actor in a “Could have had a V8” commercial. “WHAP!”

Flossing takes an extra 60 seconds of our routine, but many of us (myself included) often skip it, much to our detriment. Flossing keeps teeth and gums free of the particles that regular brushing just can’t get at . . . thus contributing to the overall health of our mouth. Flossing gets down to the very minutia of teeth health.

While I can’t seem to bring myself to remember to floss regularly (truly, it’s such a vice), nary a day goes by when I’m not drawn to another kind of flossing . . . that of the mental nature. Yes– one can “floss” the mind thanks to an ingenious little website now frequented by millions.

MentalFloss.com, to be precise.

Yes– there’s actually a website dedicating entirely to ensuring that you’re regularly flossing . . . your mind. It offers a thoroughly amusing plethora of facts, figures, and little-known bits of history sure to make a Trivial Pursuit champion out of anyone.

On the eve of Thanksgiving, I was certain the site would be filled with fun facts about America’s second most recognized holiday, and indeed it was. One entry in particular caught my eye–a video entitled “25 Little-Known Facts About Thanksgiving”

Always game for learning the little known, I watched the video.

After breaking the devastating news that the Pilgrims didn’t necessarily wear buckle hats to his viewers, Mr. Green proceeds swiftly to factoids #2 and #3

“Thanksgiving doesn’t have religious origins” and “Harvest festivals predated European colonists arriving in America, meaning Thanksgiving didn’t REALLY originate in America.”

Mr. Green explains that as a society we’ve been collectively misled to believe that the Pilgrims and the Puritans (a religious group in England) were one in the same . . . thus leading to the supposed misconception that the Thanksgiving we know today is innately religious. Pilgrims, as he puts it, means “anyone” who came to the Americas during that time. He ends it there– simply stating that because the Pilgrims and the Puritans weren’t the same, Thanksgiving isn’t religious in origin.

To be certain, not every one of the passengers on the famed Mayflower ship bound for the New World were, like William Bradford and company, searching for freedom from religious persecution in England. Some looked at the New World as as a business opportunity, much like those who initially left for Jamestown colony. A “pilgrim” indeed stems from the Latin word “peregrinus” which means traveler . . . though literally translated it means “one who has come from afar . . . who is on a journey to a holy place.”

It’s interesting that history has forever referred to those Plymouth colonists as “Pilgrims” and not “settlers,” “explorers” or “colonists” as were others of the day. To use this term and not another indicates a distinct religious vein–the Pilgrims we know from Plymouth Colony were named as such due to their distinction as Separatists who had fled James I’s England to Holland . . . and eventually to the New World. They were seeking a new Promised Land of sorts . . . a place in which they could exercise their faith as they saw fit. To Mr. Green’s credit, indeed they were not Puritans per se. (Though the Puritans did come later on as well). They were associated with the Puritans, but split with the group on certain matters. Hence their name–“The Separatists.”

This group boarded the Mayflower and spent a harrowing 66 day voyage across the rabid North Atlantic until finally arriving at the New World.

Many of the Pilgrims died during that first year, due in part to their unfamiliarity with the land, but in even greater part to their experimentation with collectivism through The Mayflower Compact. They eventually abandoned this notion and, coupled with Patuxet Indian Squanto’s much needed aid (something Governor William Bradford referred to as “a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation,”) the remaining Pilgrims were to survive. Squanto indeed “taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn and find fish . . . to stalk deer, plant pumpkin, find berries and catch beaver, whose pelts proved to be their economic deliverance. He was also helpful in securing a peace treaty between the Pilgrims and surrounding Indiana tribes, which lasted over fifty years.” (America’s Providential History, p. 73)

For these many blessings, Governor William Bradford then declared a day of Thanksgiving, inviting Squanto’s adopted tribe (the Wampanoag) to celebrate with them. It lasted over 3 days.

This first celebration set into motion many “declared” days of Thanksgiving, from George Washington to various state governors, and beyond. It was finally a woman named Sarah Josepha Hale, a prominent ladies’ magazine editor, who finally talked a sitting president into moving from an informal “day of thanksgiving” to a formalized national holiday on which all citizens would be encouraged to give thanks:

“You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritive fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.”

Lincoln thought well of the idea, especially in the face of a broken nation he was trying to reunite. He immediately obliged, writing the following in his subsequent official proclamation:

“It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore if, as soon as may be consistent with the divine purpose, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity, and union. . .”

We live in a free country. As such, Mr. Green is free to look at today’s celebrations as nothing more than an opportunity to get together with friends and family for a delicious meal. No one forces him, or anyone, to give thanks to God. This freedom, however doesn’t give Mr. Green–or anyone–the right to rewrite history. Giving thanks may not be an inherently Christian (or religious) or “American” tradition . . . but the things that set this day of celebration in motion for this country certainly were. We don’t celebrate our Thanksgiving because the Celts held harvest festivals in ancient Ireland; we don’t celebrate our Thanksgiving because of the traditions of a central African tribe at harvest time (though ironically enough those are “religious” in nature as well.). No– we celebrate Thanksgiving in the way we do thanks to the traditions set in motion by the Pilgrims; traditions that were carried into our founding and throughout our history; traditions which are based squarely on giving thanks to God for the bountiful blessings we possess. While again I recognize the right of anyone to refuse to actually “give thanks to God” . . . I’ve got a challenge those who recognize no existence of God and thus give thanks to no God on this day of Thanksgiving; a challenge I’ve pilfered from perhaps my favorite president:

As you sit down to your Thanksgiving feast; as you sit in your warm home filled with the sights and smells of arguably the most gloriously prepared meal of the entire year . . . I ask you: would you deny the existence of a cook? Indeed you wouldn’t– someone had to have taken the time and energy to prepare the bountiful meal you’re about to eat. To whom or what do we owe of the existence of our very lives and all of their trappings; something far more complex than the beautiful meal you’re about to eat?

Now there’s some “food” for thought. 🙂

Happy Thanksgiving, all!

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