Elyssa East: Thanksgiving, A Moveable Fast





[Elyssa East is the author of the forthcoming “Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town.”]

“IT’S Thanksgiving — time to put our feedbags on,” my family likes to say as we elbow for room next to the Pilgrim and Puritan ghosts the holiday summons to our table. Our colonial forebears probably would not disapprove of our having second and third helpings of sweet potatoes and stuffing, or even rushing off to watch football after the meal — the Pilgrims themselves played lots of games at that first Thanksgiving in 1621. But I imagine they would find fault with our binge for another reason: it is not accompanied by a fast.

To the Pilgrims and Puritans, the community-wide fast, or “day of public humiliation and prayer,” and the thanksgiving feast, or day of “public thanksgiving and praise,” were equal halves of the same ritual. But the fast was not merely a justification for a community-wide gorging. Both customs were important components of a religious rite that served to pacify an angry God who was believed to punish entire communities for the sins of the few with starvation, “excessive rains from the bottles of heaven,” epidemics, crop infestations, the Indian wars and other hardships.

According to the 19th-century historian William DeLoss Love, the New England colonies celebrated as many as nine such “special public days” a year from 1620 to 1700. And as the Puritans were masters of self-denial, days of abstention outnumbered thanksgivings two to one. Fasting, Cotton Mather wrote, “kept the wheel of prayer in continual motion.”

Pleas for rain during spells of drought were the most common reason for fasting. But Puritans also fasted whenever a comet, an evil portent, appeared in the sky; at the start of the Salem witch trials; and throughout the various colonial Indian wars (Mather preached that the horrors in King Philip’s War, against the Wampanoag Indians, had been sent by God to chastise colonists for the sin of wig wearing)...


comments powered by Disqus