2016-06-30
PLYMOUTH, Mass., Nov. 21 (RNS) -- Visit this spot where the Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving in 1621 and you're as apt to see Jamaican drummers and Bolivian bards this week as anything reminiscently Pilgrim.

That's because Plymouth's celebration has been transformed in recent years from a one-day Pilgrim remembrance to a weeklong multicultural festival. The new rainbow of diversity, which began with a parade five years ago, has ballooned this year with $84,000 in public grants to attract performers, craftspeople and dignitaries from 26 countries.

Organizers have multiple goals for the new Thanksgiving celebration.

They hope for brisk retail business as well as peace with American Indians, who clashed violently with police three years ago in an annual Day of Mourning protest against the ongoing plight of natives. Indian chiefs now receive honors in opening ceremonies.

But at the heart of the remake lies a struggle to define what Plymouth and the first Thanksgiving should symbolize today. Is it the arrival of the Gospel? The start of genocide? Or the organizers' favorite: the American immigrant experience?

"When I look at the Pilgrims, I see all of us. We all came here from somewhere," said Olavo Demacedo, a Cape Verde Islands immigrant and chairman of the board for America's Hometown Thanksgiving Celebration. "I was the beneficiary of their struggle."

It's in that vein of celebrating immigration that this year's event has taken off. Plymouth capitalized on the United Nations declaration of 2000 as the "International Year of Thanksgiving" by making America's Hometown Thanksgiving Celebration an event in which "the world comes home" to Plymouth.

Despite the week's international flair, costumed marchers will proceed as usual on Thanksgiving Day from Plymouth Rock to the site of the first meeting house in the 80th annual Pilgrim Progress spectacle. But some who follow in the Pilgrims' spiritual footsteps say their ancestors' devotion to Jesus now lies in the shadow of the weeklong event's "fuzzy focus."

"Is there a possibility that the Pilgrim faith will get swallowed up and disappear in a multicultural festival? Surely. In essence, that's what's happened," said Paul Jehle, historian and senior pastor of the evangelical New Testament Church of Cedarville, Mass. "Our goal, though, is to be salt and light."

Church members did so in part by sponsoring a Pilgrim float in the multicultural parade on Saturday.

American Indian protesters aren't entirely pleased with the new arrangement either.

"It doesn't change the reason why there is a National Day of Mourning," said Mahtowin Munro, a leader of United American Indians of New England, in an interview with the Boston Globe. "Native people continue to live in the absolute worst conditions on small squats of land. None of this is changing."

Though the National Day of Mourning began in the early 1970s, it took a new turn in 1997 with a march through Plymouth on Thanksgiving Day. Police arrested 25 protesters who sought to draw attention to native sufferings since Europeans first arrived here.

Today, local historians often speak of the harmony that existed between Pilgrims and Indians at the first Thanksgiving and for the first 50 years of settlement. And for the most part, Plymouth residents say they support the new direction of Thanksgiving celebrations. They cite reasons beyond the $1.5 million it gives the tourism industry, which is still bouncing back from the bad national and international press that followed 1997's violence and arrests.

"If the Pilgrim story has relevance today, it has to be more generalized (to become) a metaphor for every immigrant's experience," said Annette Talbot, former president of the Plymouth Historical Alliance. "I think the multicultural context can build on Pilgrim Progress and simply widen and deepen the experience."

Indeed, the quest to see Pilgrims as icons for all immigrants has become a year-round project in Plymouth, which has absorbed influxes of Portuguese and others in the past two centuries. The Pilgrim Hall museum, for example, has featured modern immigrant exhibits for more than five years. The Plymouth Savings Bank sponsors the current one called, "Packing for America."

But even those who orchestrated this week's immigrant celebration have stressed Thanksgiving is still about thanking God. Demacedo, the board's chairman, arranged for Harvard chaplain and Plymouth native the Rev. Peter Gomes to open the ceremonies with a Christian prayer. He said he also urged churches to march and pray in the parade.

"I'm here advocating that tradition of stopping to give thanks to God," Demacedo said. "It celebrates the very foundation that the Pilgrims laid here. ... We have to be inclusive and not lose our identity. It's a tricky thing. It really is."

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