Thanksgiving: The Refugee Holiday

by Jason Dzubow on November 21, 2012

in Immigration

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They say that if you have a hammer, every problem is a nail.  In the same way, if you have an asylum blog, every holiday involves asylum.  Last Christmas, I wrote about how Jesus, Mary and Joseph were asylum seekers.  Today, I thought I’d discuss Thanksgiving and refugees.  Maybe next time, I will explain why Arbor Day is an asylum holiday. 

The connection between refugees and Thanksgiving is probably pretty obvious. 

Starting in the late 16th century, a group of Separatists who objected to certain practices of the Church of England faced persecution from ecclesiastic and state authorities.  These people were later called Pilgrims.  As a result of their tenuous situation in England, they migrated to the Netherlands in the first decade of the 17th century.

The Pilgrims were not thrilled with the libertine atmosphere on the Continent, and so they returned to England and then sailed to North America in 1620.  If they were seeking refuge today, the Pilgrim’s return to England (re-availing themselves of the protection of the English government) might very well disqualify them for asylum.  Also, the fact that they were firmly resettled in the Netherlands, and then chose to up and move to America might also disqualify them for asylum.

In any case, after a difficult 65-day journey on the Mayflower, the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock in November 1620.  That winter was particularly hard, and about 50% of the new settlers died.

Things improved the following year with a good harvest (and with the help of local Indians), and the Pilgrims decided to celebrate–this would be the first Thanksgiving dinner.  Attending the dinner were 53 Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans from the Wampanoag tribe.  The celebration lasted for three days.

After the first Thanksgiving, various public leaders and church officials would declare thanksgiving holidays, but there was no set date for the festival.  Finally in 1789, George Washington proclaimed the first nation-wide thanksgiving celebration, but the holiday was still not regularized. 

In 1863, during the height of the Civil War, President Lincoln declared that Thanksgiving would be celebrated on the last Thursday in November (and here I must mention Sarah Joseph Hale, a tireless crusader who helped make Thanksgiving a national holiday (and who wrote the nursery rhyme Mary Had a Little Lamb)).

In 1941, Franklin Roosevelt signed a bill making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November.  Thus, the holiday achieved its present form.

I’ve noticed that many new immigrants to the U.S. celebrate Thanksgiving.  Because it is a holiday for giving thanks and for success in the New World, it is perhaps the quintessential immigrant holiday.  And while some have criticized the holiday as glossing over the effect of colonialism on native peoples (including the Wampanoag), the first Thanksgiving was a moment when two very different cultures encountered each other and dined together in peace.  This, to me, is the true spirit of the holiday.  Happy Thanksgiving. 

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