This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for November 24, 2016, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
One of the most vivid memories I have about being an elementary school student in Dime Box Rural School is making things out of construction paper to celebrate each of the seasons of the year. Designing and cutting out wreaths and Christmas trees at Christmas and hearts on Valentine’s Day were easy assignments for an aspiring artist, but Thanksgiving time in the Third Grade provided a greater challenge. We made what were called “Indian” headdresses (with a real feather) and tall, black Pilgrim hats.
The Indian headdresses were easy to make – a band around the head with a feather stuck in it. No one tried to tackle making a war bonnet. The Pilgrim hat was more difficult. They were like dunce caps with brims and the point cut off, though Pilgrims are sometimes depicted with a type of witches’ hat with the point. You could make a brim out of cardboard and put an upside down wastebasket on top of it, since Pilgrim hats were often seen in pictures shaped like wastebaskets. We made black Pilgrim hats with white buckles.
In actuality, those who study historic costume design tell us that Pilgrims, as well as Puritans, wore a variety of clothing styles and colors. The funny-shaped hats we call Pilgrim hats were fashionable in England and elsewhere in the 1600’s, and wealthier people did wear silver buckles on them (since Pilgrims were not wealthy, they probably didn’t). There is every indication that all Pilgrims did not wear black hats, but a variety of colors instead.
We know from the Pilgrim chronicler, Edward Winslow, that the Wampanoag Indians and the Pilgrims did celebrate a harvest festival together which probably was the first American Thanksgiving. However, no one knows exactly all of the food items that were eaten that day. We are told by Winslow that the Wampanoag brought five deer for the meal, and that the Pilgrim men hunted for birds. They could have been wild turkeys, but they also could have been ducks or geese, and which ones were cooked and eaten were not specified. If you serve deer for Thanksgiving dinner, you may be more authentic than those who serve turkey.
Most people know more about the Wampanoag than they do about the Pilgrims. Who were these icons of American history that we call “Pilgrims”?
Well, in the 16th and 17th Centuries, many pious folks in England were convinced that the Church of England, which Henry VIII established by breaking away from the Roman Catholic faith, had become too unspiritual, too decadent, and not pious enough. These people formed religious groups, such as the Puritans and the Separatists. Although Elizabeth I and James I did not like them, the Puritans were tolerated, because they did not break away from the Church of England. The Separatists, on the other hand, even though a branch of Puritanism, were more radical and did break away. At that time in England, it was against the law to be anything but a member of the Church of England. It’s the Separatists who became what we know as the Pilgrims settling in Plymouth Colony, -- well, at least a great number of Separatists were on the Mayflower.
The Separatists went from England to the Netherlands for religious freedom., and ultimately to New England. I am not an expert on the history of Christianity, but many of today’s Protestant denominations were either triggered by or at least influenced by the Puritan and Separatists movements. No doubt the writings of John Calvin and Martin Luther influenced the theologies of these puritanical groups. “Pietism” was a movement within the Lutheran church that might be described as “Puritan.”
The Wampanoag were in North America long before any European arrived. “Wampanoag” means “People of the First Light,” and in the 17th Century, there were about 40,000 members of the Wampanoag Nation, living along the east coast, at what is today called Cape Cod and the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, and Rhode Island. Today, there are about four or five thousand Wampanoag living in New England.
Dime Box was a long way from Plymouth Colony, but we made Indian headbands and Pilgrim hats, whether authentic or not, and we gave thanks to God in the classroom back in the days when that was still allowed. I remember it with much joy. Happy Thanksgiving to all!
Ray Spitzenberger serves as pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wallis, after retiring from Wharton County Junior College, where he taught English and speech and served as chairman of Communications and Fine Arts for many years.