Massoud Hayoun

Plymouth Thanksgiving festivities unite a young US

‘America's hometown’ – half whimsy, half history and a little surreal – conjures spirit of a not-so-distant past

PLYMOUTH, Mass. — For Tracy Cui, a native of Beijing — where history spans millennia — the nearby Plymouth Rock monument isn’t so much historical as underwhelming.

Unlike the flocks of parents who have arrived from across the nation this November to immerse their children in American history and partake in Thanksgiving festivities, Cui traveled from Boston for a friend’s art exhibit.

“With time, this place will become old too,” she says, employing a Mandarin colloquialism literally meaning that things yellow with age. “It’s important for national unity to have a history.”

Roughly a mile from the spot in Plymouth where the Mayflower docked is a modest rock with “1620,” the year the vessel arrived, chiseled into its surface. It’s not the original Plymouth Rock of American lore, where the Pilgrims first set foot on what is now the United States, but for many, it's still a symbol of the United States’ inception. 

The town of Plymouth, which bills itself as “America’s hometown,” is also believed to be the site of the first Thanksgiving — a harvest feast in 1621, when the Pilgrims famously broke bread with their Wampanoag Native American neighbors after braving the wilderness of the New World. And in a nation of immigrants from vastly different cultures who arrived in different waves, Americans celebrate Thanksgiving more than any other holiday. Studies have shown that 96 percent of Americans celebrate a day that people at Plymouth say helps a relatively young country develop a sense of history and unified culture.

Despite a not-so-distant past and although many visitors here have no genealogical roots in Plymouth, appreciation for Americana and its genesis is palpable.

Visitors explore Plymouth colony at Plimoth Plantation's "living museum."
Massoud Hayoun

And Thanksgiving is “variable,” says Richard Pickering, director of Plimoth Plantation, a sprawling living museum in Plymouth that reincarnates the Pilgrim colony and a Wampanoag Indian village in 1627. “Plimoth” was how Pilgrims at the time spelled the town’s name.

“The lasagna can be next to the turkey. It’s an American tradition that has room for everyone," Pickering said. “You don’t have to have a [Mayflower] relative for this to be your story.”

Thanksgiving also bridges regional gaps.

“It’s very hard for any of us who have lived a long time in one place to understand the rest of the American experience. As a lifelong New Englander … I can’t envision the lives of the West Coast. We have shared institutions like McDonalds and strip malls, but the regional values are hard to share,” Pickering said.

But license plates along the Plymouth waterfront reveal that many of visitors have made pilgrimages from faraway Texas, North Carolina and Kansas to remember what some say is America’s first immigration story.

And more new immigrants are going to Plimoth Plantation on Thanksgiving, because they see the parallels between the Pilgrims’ struggles in America and their own experiences coming to the United States, said Paul Cripps, the director of Destination Plymouth, the local tourism authority.

At tented bazaars near the plantation, local vendors sell fresh-milled apple cider and every cranberry product imaginable. A band with a banjo, a fiddle, an accordion and an electric guitar plays an eclectic array of hits from the American contemporary canon, from Dolly Parton’s country classic “Jolene” to Linda Ronstadt’s ’70s funk ballad “You’re No Good.” Children and parents sit on hay bales just outside, eating funnel cakes with a hearty helping of powdered sugar.

A short walk away, tourists visit the docked Mayflower II — a replica of the vessel that brought the nation’s forebears over in 1620 — where re-enactors from nearby Plimoth Plantation prepare their clothes, accents and meals with geisha-like attention to detail. Wampanoag re-enactors model the lives of their 17th century ancestors, speaking of them in the present tense. Everything — from the technique used to forge nails keeping the Pilgrim houses together to the breed of livestock on their farms — is as it would have been back then, Pickering explained.

“It makes me feel like I’m one of our ancestors,” said Jonathan Fitzmaurice, a 10-year-old who arrived with a group of 110 fellow Boy Scouts. “They made us a free land.”

Jonathan’s mother, Gina Fitzmaurice, takes him to Plymouth on the hour-and-a-half drive from New Hampshire each year around Thanksgiving.

“If you don’t know where you come from, you can’t know where you’re going,” she says.

With preparations underway for Plymouth’s 400th anniversary, many visitors say that although the U.S. is young, they value connecting with what history it has.  

“We are young. We have things we can learn from others, but we have a rich history too,” said Chris Jones, who took his 5- and 7-year-old children. “Other nations — like Canada and Australia — grew away from England. Our birth started in a different way.”

But it precisely because the U.S. is young that its history is so accessible and has such a powerful effect, Pickering said.

“To think there are only 13 generations between us and the Mayflower and you can have 13 people stand in a room and clasp hands to represent those lives going backwards — that’s incredible,” he said.

At a Plimoth Plantation Harvest Dinner — an homage to the first Thanksgiving — foods are prepared and served as they would have been in the 17th century. “Ciderkin,” or cider, and “dish of turkey, sauc’d” top the menu.

Lois Kascener and her husband made the trip from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and met one of her ancestors: Plymouth Colony Gov. William Bradford’s wife, Alice. Not the real Alice Bradford but a young re-enactor, whom Kascener and her companions at the dining table grilled for information about the historical figure. The actress responded to questions on the intimate details of her life in a perfect accent, learned from CDs and cassettes and practiced with fellow thespians.

Plimoth Plantation is perhaps the foremost example of a quintessentially Massachusetts phenomenon: reliving the past. Traveling across the state, particularly on American holidays, one finds a cottage industry in historical re-enactment. Outside one of the oldest cemeteries in the U.S. in Salem, one can see a young woman in bonnet and corset telling spellbound tourists about the infamous 1692 witch trials as though she had been there. Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge is another living history museum, approximating life in the area during the 1830s. 

And it’s a fruitful enterprise. Plymouth's tourism industry generates $350 million annually, according to local authorities, and in recent years the industry has grown at an average of 3 percent a year — not an easy feat for a small town.

Kascener worries that the farther west you go, the less people get excited about America’s rich — albeit short — history.

“I think there’s a tremendous absence of emphasis as you [go] out west in this country,” she said.

But tourism figures show that despite her concerns, people from Texas, Ohio and Kansas are among the top visitors to Plymouth.

With Plimoth Plantation’s offerings — half whimsy, half history and a little surreal — parents develop a sense of American patriotism in their children. Of course, it's not entirely educational. At the John Carver Inn in downtown Plymouth, children can literally catapult themselves out of the “Mayflower,” a large replica of the iconic Pilgrim ship, with a water slide coiled around its mast.

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