American Holidays

Seeking God, Puritan separatists – who we today call “the Pilgrims” – fled their dread sovereign lord King James I for the foreign shores of North America to found a New Jerusalem. They sought escape from the religious persecution of the British monarchy, through which James reigned over affairs of state as well as affairs of faith. Attendance of Anglican services, by act of Parliament, was a legal obligation. To establish an independent congregation was tantamount to treason, heresy.

By 1620, the separatists were hungry seeking an outlet for their religious ideals. They had been forced out of Nottinghamshire to the Netherlands where, fearing invasion by Spanish Catholics, they set out, 102 strong for Virginia, on a voyage, according to the hastily drafted Mayflower Compact, “undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country.” So Plymouth Plantation, their new home along the rocky shores of Massachusetts Bay, came to be. They were free to adhere to whatever religious tenants they saw fit, but their hunger quickly turned to starvation.

In the first winter at Plymouth, nearly half of the original settlers died for lack of resources. Meanwhile, however, some in North America prospered. According to his book “1491,” a revisionist history of life in the “New World” pre-colonialism, Charles Mann writes that the Wampanoag Indians native to Cape Cod ran productive farm fields, generally consuming more calories per capita than the average European. And when the settlers arrived, emaciated and freezing to death, it was the Wampanoag who treated them like brothers, taught them how to cope with their harsh new environment, to harvest corn, to survive.

With the first winter come and gone and with the tools the pilgrims needed to survive, they grew hungrier still. They were drunk on the new land, the seemingly limitless resources. They split. They expanded. New settlements appeared: Massachusetts in 1628, New Hampshire in 1629, Connecticut in 1633, Maine in 1635, Rhode Island in 1636, New Haven in 1638.

They were fur traders and profiteers and Calvinists, they believed that humanity was, by its nature, evil and corrupt, that we could only find salvation through arbitrary divine grace, by pre-determination. The damned and the saved were determined before the cards were dealt. The Indians were not saved. They caught our diseases. They caught our bullets.

By 1675, William Bradford, the original governor of Plymouth, was dead. As was Massasoit, the Wampanoag leader who made the first uneasy peace with the English settlers. Thousands of people, by now, were living in and around Plymouth, encroaching on Wampanoag lands, their livestock trampling their fields and war broke out.

One in 10 soldiers on each side was killed. Wampanoags who’d converted to Christianity were not allowed to fight for the English – they were, instead, interned in camps on islands off the coast. When the English finally defeated the Wampanoag, their prisoners of war were sold into slavery. Seven hundred of them remain today, they live in Gay Head on Martha’s Vineyard.

We are the children of that conquest. We came hungry for God, seeking freedom, seeking land, seeking prosperity until it all became indistinguishable. We built a society founded on Christian principles. And we grew hungrier. We took land. We told natives to assimilate to our foreign culture. And when they didn’t “civilize,” we pushed them west. That is, until we looked West too, and God suddenly said it was the divine destiny of the Anglo-Saxon people to expand to the Pacific.

Wes Churchill, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado, estimates that between 1500 and 1900 the North American Indian population went from 12 million to barely 237,000. Meanwhile, in 1603 there were approximately 4 million English speakers in the world – today there are more than 75 times that number.

And now, with Thanksgiving sitting like a lump in our contented stomachs, we look onward toward Christmas and we are still hungry. A woman was hospitalized, trampled just inside a Grand Rapids, Mich., Wal-Mart on Friday morning. And we are still hungry. And in Orlando, fistfights broke out in a parking lot over cheap laptops. We are still hungry, but we no longer meditate, we no longer worship – we idolize, we covet, and we grow hungrier still.