Here’s another reason to hedge your bets by using the “Happy Holidays” greeting at this season: Monday was Forefathers’ Day. Deride its importance at your own peril, and at the peril of your country.
Forefathers’ Day likely is not on your calendar and surely is not top of mind, but it has been celebrated one way or another for 251 years, usually on Dec. 21 but not always, its date dependent on which historical account, which calendar and which source is regarded as preeminent.
It turns out that this was a pretty important Forefathers’ Day, occurring as it does exactly 400 years after the Pilgrims — the forefathers we have in mind — landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts. Not that, amidst a pandemic, there would be much public celebration for such an important anniversary.
But in a way, that doesn’t matter, for the meaning of Forefathers’ Day transcends outdoor commemorations or even the landing at Plymouth in 1620. It’s an idea more than a day, even though its day has passed.
“This holiday did have its day, but that was almost a century ago,” says James W. Baker, a member of the Pilgrim Society and the unofficial historian of Forefathers’ Day. “The Pilgrims have lost some of their luster, and Forefathers’ Day was kind of killed by national celebrations of Thanksgiving. Having two holidays around this one event was too much, especially since Forefathers’ Day was so close to Christmas.”
But this being the holiday season, let’s put aside the crisis of the moment, and the eclipse of this particular holiday, and reflect on what Forefathers’ Days of years past — years and years past — has meant. And mostly it has meant speeches, long stemwinders with little relation to the soundbites and tweets of our day, but often with messages that might provoke introspection in our own time.
Like the one John Quincy Adams delivered in 1802, nearly two years after his father left the presidency and after his appointment by President George Washington as minister to the Netherlands, the departure point of the Pilgrims in 1620, had ended. He said this of the refugees who braved an Atlantic crossing and debarked onto the New World:
Here was a unanimous and personal assent, by all the individuals of the community, to the association by which they became a nation.
In this remark, the man who would become the sixth president and later a distinguished member of the House and ardent opponent of slavery, identified the Mayflower Compact as the founding document of American democracy. It was not noted then, but is poignant now, that Adams emerged as a prominent proponent of the Missouri Compromise, which sought to limit the expansion of slavery, in 1820, the year in which Americans marked the bicentenary of the landing at Plymouth.
To commemorate Forefathers’ Day in that anniversary year, the town fathers of Plymouth invited the greatest orator of the age, Daniel Webster, to mark the occasion, which he did this way:
History instructs us that this love of religious liberty, a compound sentiment in the breast of man, made up of the clearest sense of right and the highest conviction of duty, is able to look the sternest despotism in the face, and, with means apparently most inadequate, to shake principalities and powers. There is a boldness, a spirit of daring, in religious reformers, not to be measured by the general rules which control men’s purposes and actions.
Over the years, freedom — the freedom of religion the Pilgrims sought, but freedom all its incarnations — became a Forefathers’ Day leitmotif.
That is what motivated Sen. Charles Sumner, perhaps the greatest congressional opponent of slavery, to deliver these Forefathers’ Day remarks in 1853, three years before Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina would beat the Massachusetts lawmaker on the Senate floor with a metal-topped cane. Referring to the Pilgrims, he said:
And these outcasts, despised in their own day by the proud and great, are the men whom we have met in this goodly number to celebrate; not for any victory of war; not for any triumph of discovery, science, learning, or eloquence; not for worldly success of any kind. How poor are all these things by the side of that divine virtue which made them, amidst the reproach, the obloquy and the hardness of the world, hold fast to Freedom and Truth!
Two years later, William H. Seward, another great opponent of slavery, addressed the notion of freedom in 1855, a year after the Kansas-Nebraska Act repealed the Missouri Compromise ban of slavery north of the 36 degrees 30 minutes latitude line:
Political equality is nothing else than the full enjoyment, by every member of the state, of the absolute rights which belong equally to all men.
Forefathers’ Day no longer inspires public dinners, toasts to the Pilgrims, ceremonial cannon fire, or evenings that, according to an early account, were spent “recapitulating and conversing upon the many and various advantages of our forefathers in the first settlement of this country, and the growth and increase of the same.” Nor is there, as in 1770, entertainment where “the history of emigrant colonies and the constitution and declension of empires, ancient and modern” is discussed over a meal “foreign from all kinds of luxury, and consisting of fish, flesh, and vegetables, the natural produce of this colony.”
But we might consider two ways to commemorate Forefathers’ Day in our time.
First, gather dry white beans, hulled corn, corned beef, salt pork, chicken, potatoes and a single large French white turnip — the ingredients of Mrs. Barnabas Churchill’s succotash. If she were here today, she would implore us to soak the beans overnight, then simmer them “in soft water until (the) beans are soft enough to mash and water is nearly absorbed.” At about 8 the next morning, much of the rest is to be placed “into very large kettle of cold water.” Don’t add the turnip until 11 a.m. Heat and serve! Be sure to have your succotash bowl handy.
The second is to heed the words of direct Mayflower-passenger descendant Edward Winslow Jr., who concluded his 1770 Forefathers’ Day remarks by saying, “... if we, their sons, act from the same principles, and conduct with the same noble firmness and resolution, when our holy religion or our civil liberties are invaded, we may expect a reward proportionate ...”
Think about that, on Forefathers’ Day, and every day.