“Thanksgiving is an emotional holiday. People travel thousands of miles to be with people they only see once a year. And then discover once a year is way too often.”
Everybody loves Thanksgiving! Well, maybe not everybody. For some folks, those annual pilgrimages to Mom’s or Sis’ or Aunt Bea’s means forced conviviality, boredom and dreary alcohol-free punch. Those with a taste for the dramatic might anticipate a good old family brawl with someone or other storming out of the room. But the edge of such encounters is usually dulled when a kindly relative coaxes the offended party back to the table to the dismay of those who’d felt they’d “scored one.” So what’s behind the ennui that accompanies what’s billed as a festive gathering—blame it on the pilgrims. Those gloomy separatists with their funny hats and buckled shoes got the ball rolling. And what could you expect from guys who look like they’ve been sucking on a sour pickle all their lives other than a major buzz kill. More prayin’ than eatin’ was their motto and so the day took on an air of solemnity that’s distinctly at odds with the modern American fun-loving spirit. But there’s a little known fact about Thanksgiving that might start moving things in the right direction.
It turns out, not everyone on the Mayflower was a pilgrim. One such non-pilgrim was Stephen Hopkins and he was a character. Hopkins had owned a bar and grill in Hampshire before deciding to make his fortune in the New World. To that end, he booked passage on the Sea Venture and sailed for Jamestown. Regrettably, the Sea Venture was wrecked on the coast of Bermuda and—in the spirit of Gilligan’s Island—the passengers and crew had to fend for themselves. For reasons known only to himself, Hopkins rashly decided to buck the captain’s authority. For his trouble he was court-martialed and sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted and instead he was more or less sentenced to Jamestown for two years. Returning to England, he told the story to his friend Will Shakespeare (no kidding) and the whole thing ended up as The Tempest with a character—Stephano—based on Hopkins. Deciding to give it another go, he and his family shipped out on the Mayflower. Despite what you might have guessed, he got along well with the righteous brethren—principally because he was the only one with any practical experience. He proved a skilled negotiator with the Massasoits and his hunting and tracking skills helped feed the community. He was an original signatory of the Mayflower Compact (despite his previously mutinous ways), served as assistant to the governor and held various council positions. But Hopkins couldn’t help himself. For everything he did that the pilgrims appreciated, he did something that offended them. Back in the bar business, he was routinely hauled into court and found guilty of tolerating drunkenness, serving customers before Sunday worship was over and letting patrons, “play at shouell board, & such like misdemeanors.” Oh, he was also convicted of price gouging. The court found that his beer and wine prices were “oppressing and impoverishing the colony.” Not a model pilgrim, is he?
None-the–less, among all those sober-sided pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving, the guest list shows (yes, they kept a guest list) the Hopkins family was the largest present. You’ve got to believe that the colony’s favorite bartender was having a marvelous time. So if your Thanksgiving is looking a little too serious, remind folks of Stephen Hopkins. Give thanks and have a good time! —Ebert