Why Did The Pilgrims Establish A Day Of Thanksgiving?

November 22, 2012, 10:41 am

To get a long weekend for catching up on their grading, of course.

Oh yeah, Thanksgiving has a bunch of origin stories, but this is the one no one knows. See, in 1621 the Pilgrims had assigned a bunch of papers and got backed up, as is not uncommon even for really conscientious faculty. But the Pilgrims had been staking out a new empire and purifying the Anglican church. They were simply overcommitted, and had not yet “learned to say no” as so many of us are now usefully instructed to do by senior colleagues.

The Wampanoags, however, were concerned about their grades, particularly since it was well past midterms. They came over and were like, “Yo! When are we getting our papers back?” In a classic feint that had first been used at Oxford back in 1321, the Puritan forefathers said, “We are almost done grading but in the meantime, why don’t you come to dinner and bring the main course?” Which the Wampanoags did, bringing a roasted turkey. They could have brought fish, a deer, or an array of smaller birds (which could have easily been cooked on a sharpened stick), but they brought a turkey.

Why? No historian has ever asked or answered this vital question. However, drawing on my extensive background in textual analysis, feminist studies, borderlands theory, queering everything and the epistemology of contact zones, I have solved a vexing problem that defies empirical study. Due to critical approaches to knowledge influenced by Paolo Freire, the Wampanoag’s choice of a main course was an understated act of resistance meant to convey a critique of hierarchical learning systems. This now classic main course for Thanksgiving was meant to signify: “Turkey, how am I supposed to write a third paper when I haven’t got the second one back yet?”

Although they spoke no Wampanoag, the pilgrims frequently got messages from God that were delivered in similarly oblique ways; for example, smallpox epidemics and having to fish a small child out of the fireplace every now and then. They did not misunderstand this powerful indictment of their failure to return papers in a timely way. Feeling that the class was getting somewhat out of control, they went on the attack and, instead of addressing the question directly, pointed histrionically to a range of side dishes they had assembled on the table. This meant: “Dudes, you should be giving thanks that we are here at all teaching you how to write a college-level essay.  Did the Pequots ever offer you more than multiple choice exams? So try these mashed yams with baby marshmallows and let’s talk about why you do not use spell check, like, at all.”

Well, the Pilgrim forefathers had them there, so the Wampanoags sat down and whispered to each other that it was rude to just pick the marshmallows off, and don’t forget that your eyes can be bigger than your tummy. Tensions eased between the two groups, and everyone took pictures of the food to post to their Facebook pages. The whole bunch even listened politely to Great Aunt Charity reminiscing for the eleventymillionth time about the laughs everyone used to have back in England watching heretics being burned at the stake and picking through the monasteries after Cromwell’s soldiers had taken everything of value.

Those were the days.

Meanwhile, in that daub and wattle cabin you can see to the right, some of the younger Pilgrims, ones who hoped to have a tenure-track position at Harvard in fifteen years (or whenever the Massachusetts Bay Colony got around to founding it), were grading the papers as fast as they could and arguing whether having a union would make it ok to be an adjunct.

The moral of the story? The real traditions passed down from the first Thanksgiving are the invention of the teaching assistant and the completion of all grading by Monday.

Happy Turkey Day to all!

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