Thanksgiving: A Bittersweet Holiday

This image accompanied a message I received from the General Society of Mayflower Descendants (GSMD), of which I’m a member: The Mayflower Society wishes you a healthy and happy Thanksgiving! It’s an idealized view, glorious rays of sunshine and all, of a ship that brought saints and strangers, Puritans who came to be known as the Pilgrims, to their New World in 1620. For many Native Americans, Thanksgiving is a National Day of Mourning.

I prefer William Halsall’s evocative painting below. I describe some of my feelings about this depiction, and that part of US history and cultural mythology that gave us the origin story of Thanksgiving in this early 2022 essay From New England to Vietnam: Settler Colonialism in Cross-Cultural Perspective.

Here’s an excerpt:

1620: The Beginning of the End

This famous painting by William Halsall (1882), which hangs in the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts and graces the walls of my office in Hanoi, evokes a wide swath of emotions, depending upon how the beholder interprets that pivotal moment in history. You can almost feel the frozen sea spray and hear the wintry winds whipping across the deck.

A rush of nostalgia washes over those who were taught and who internalized a deep-rooted cultural mythology: the first viable settlement in what became British Colonia America, the birthplace of American freedom and democracy, the beginning of manifest destiny, and the foundation of the “greatest nation on earth.”

For others who are more familiar with the historical reality of this time and place and, equally important, whose empathy with their fellow human beings knows no physical or temporal boundaries, there is a sense of foreboding and melancholy, an almost palpable desire and yearning to turn back the hands of time.

There is the dark knowledge that what the new arrivals, filled with unbridled joy and relief after a long and terrifying voyage, were looking at off in the distance on shore was a graveyard strewn with the bones of unburied corpses.

There is the stark realization that the days of those who had called this land their own for millennia were numbered. The arrival of this strange vessel on their shores was the beginning of the end of an era and life as they had known it.

Shalom (שלום), MAA

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