History is written by the victors and is not always as portrayed. One example of this is Thanksgiving. According to the story that surrounds it, heroic Christian pilgrims arrived in America and shared what little they had with their poor Indian neighbors in thanksgiving for their successful arrival. The truth of the matter is that the Indians weren’t poor, and if they hadn’t shared their bounty with the pilgrims, the pilgrims might not have survived. After all, yams, corn and the rest were all Indian dietary staples and the turkey was an American bird. It was Chief Massasoit and the Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans who taught the newcomers how to plant, grow and harvest the strange foods they hadn’t seen before. As for the feast, it was nothing new; it was in thanks for a bountiful harvest. Harvest festivals had been celebrated in many lands for centuries before the pilgrims ever buttered their first corn on the cob. But who were these pilgrims and why do they get the credit for the “first” thanksgiving?
The American Heritage Dictionary defines “pilgrim” as one who makes a journey for a religious purpose. The religious purpose of these pilgrims was to escape persecution, for they were English Protestants who advocated a strict discipline according to their own interpretation of the Bible. Their aim was to reconstruct and purify the church. They were tolerated for their anti-Catholic bias, but when they demanded reforms to purify the Church of England as well, they were hunted out of the country!
We use the term Pilgrims (with a capital “P”) to identify the group who arrived at Plymouth in 1620 on the Mayflower, and Puritans to define the larger group, led by John Winthrop, who arrived 10 years later and started the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Both were related by the same convictions to purify the church, yet they differed among themselves about the degree of changes. Some who stayed in England became Presbyterian, already strong in Scotland. Those who came to Plymouth considered the congregation the ultimate authority while those who came to Massachusetts considered the hierarchy elected by the congregation as the ultimate authority. Despite these minor differences, they all had one thing in common: they were among the most unreasonable and bigoted groups in history. In 1649 — less than 30 years later — the Puritans who remained in England successfully fomented a civil war under Oliver Cromwell, beheaded King Charles, and then turned their army of zealots toward Ireland and the suppression of Irish Catholics.
In Ireland, the Puritan Army began its campaign at Drogheda, where they cut down its 3,000 defenders to a man. What followed was to become the trademark of Cromwell’s victories across Ireland. These God-fearing Christians indiscriminately slaughtered the defenseless civilian population. For five days men, women and children were hunted down and butchered. Cromwell recorded that “The enemy were about 3,000 strong in the town. I believe we have put to the sword the whole number … In this very place (Saint Peter’s Church) a thousand of them were put to the sword, fleeing thither for safety.” On October 2, 1649, he declared a national day of thanksgiving in celebration of the deed at Drogheda — a depraved application of the term.
In America in 1675, the sons of the Pilgrims who dined with the Wampanoag tribe that harvest day in 1621, defeated them in a war over land. Meanwhile, Ann Glover, who had fled the turmoil in Ireland to reside in the Puritan colony in Massachusetts, was overheard saying her evening prayers in her native Gaelic. Accused by Cotton Mather of conversing with the devil, she confessed to being an Irish Catholic. She was told to denounce her religion, refused, and was hanged as a witch. The year was 1688 — 39 years after the thanksgiving at Drogheda and 68 years after the Puritan’s thanksgiving in America. The idea of giving thanks to God remains a fundamental duty, be it for a bountiful harvest or a blessing bestowed, but the cruel, un-compromising, witch-burning Puritans of the 1600s are hardly the example to hold up to our children as role models.
Let us instead look to America’s first official national day of thanksgiving, proclaimed by the Continental Congress on December 18, 1777, “as a day of solemn thanksgiving and praise” for the “signal success” of our forces at the Battle of Saratoga — a turning point in the struggle for independence. And the turning point in that battle, by the way, was the killing of General Frazier by Irish marksman Timothy Murphy of General Charles (Co. Meath) Thompson’s Pennsylvania Rifle Battalion.
In 1846, annual days of thanksgiving were being celebrated in at least 14 states when author Sarah Hale began a campaign to make the last Thursday in November a national day of thanksgiving. In the 1860s, she wrote to every state and territorial governor urging the idea as one of national unity in a country torn by civil war. On October 3, 1863, President Lincoln finally declared the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day, bringing together all the past elements of the harvest festival, national patriotism and religious observance.
This is the real story behind Thanksgiving Day and the message it should convey is one of thanks for all our blessings, both civil and religious. This year, instead of just food and football, let us remember to give thanks to the Almighty for the blessings bestowed on our families and on this great nation … and forget the guys in the funny hats with buckles on their shoes!
As for our next holiday, would you believe an Irish connection with Christmas? An Archbishop named Nicholas, a generous native of Turkey who devoted his significant inheritance to works of charity, died in Myra, Turkey, in December 342 and became a Saint. The legend of Santa Claus (sant niclaus) grew from the life of this generous Saint and spread across Europe and eventually the world. According to tradition, centuries after his death, a band of Irish-Norman knights traveled to the Holy Land as part of the Crusades, and upon their return to Ireland, they brought with them all or part of the earthly remains of St. Nicholas. They had them re-interred in the Church of St. Nicholas in the village of Newtown, Co. Kilkenny, according to a story by John Fitzgerald in the December 2002 issue of the Cork Holly Bough. Today, the Church of Saint Nicholas lies in ruins in the village of Newtown, which itself fell to ruin by the 17th century. Among the facts supporting the tradition are that the Normans were keen collectors of religious relics, and that Newtown was home to the Cistercian Jerpoint Abbey, which served as a launching point for Irish-Norman Crusaders. The abbey, founded in 1183, was dissolved in 1540, but its remains today attract many tourists. The ruined church, now on private land west of the abbey, contains an unusual grave slab dating to the 1300s. It is carved with an image of a cleric, thought to be a bishop, and two other heads. The cleric is said to be St. Nicholas and the heads are the two crusaders who brought St. Nicholas’ remains back to Ireland. Hibernian Historian Malcolm Rogers (AOH Div 61 Philadelphia) writes that several Norman noblemen owned land in the locality: “William de Dene had half an acre at Ogensy, the district around Thomastown, ‘Barony of Gowran’, William Archid (le Archer), had a quarter acre at Archerstown, in the ‘parish of St Patrick’s … Today it’s difficult to glean much information about these Norman knights, although some reports describe both William de Dene and William Archid as ‘bellicose and pious’, in fact, just the sort of men we are looking for. Could the two Williams be the Crusaders who brought Santa to Kilkenny?” We may never know, but the Church remains a place of pilgrimage at Christmas.
Kathy Collins, on VirtualTourist.com, noted that Jerpoint Abbey has “ruins from the 14th and 15th century including the outlines of the cloister … It is said that the remains of St. Nicholas, the ancient Bishop of Myra in Turkey who was the original Santa Claus, were moved to Jerpoint Abbey by Crusaders who re-buried him here in a tomb that now is marked by a broken slab decorated with the carving of a monk.”
Is it unusual for St. Nicholas to be buried in Ireland? Not at all. Isn’t Ireland the land of Saints and Scholars.
Happy Thanksgiving and a Holy Christmas to all.