The Thanksgiving Assembly
Each year we gather to lay a wreath of Indian corn at the base of J. Q. Ward’s statue “The Pilgrim” located near Central Park’s East 72nd Street entrance and read Edward Winslow’s description of the first Thanksgiving feast at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621. We always send out invitations in early November, which these last few years have been designed and printed by Robert Warner at the Seaport museum to recall antique broadsides.
The assembly started in the mid 1980’s when Rick Ellis, my partner, and I were without plans for Thanksgiving. We are both descended from passengers of the Mayflower, a “select” group according to the website of the Mayflower Society of 30 million. Large as this group is, we always felt the influence of those brave and hearty souls who set across the north Atlantic in a very small ship and hence, a particular connection to Thanksgiving. It is incredible what changes such a small group created—reflecting on those first pilgrims gives me pause each year to ponder what their legacy has wrought and what we should be grateful for.
The first year of the assembly was informal and somewhat lighthearted. We stuck upon a simple plan to celebrate that day with a brace of corn to venerate the monument. That act of placing the Indian corn so moved us that we returned the next year with a larger group of friends. That year we introduced the reading of Edward Winslow’s text, to which in later years we added parts of the Mayflower Compact, the first democratic agreement for self government in the New World. After the gathering, we walk through the park for post-assembly drinks, toasting with corn based drinks, those made with bourbon, milk, and Coca Cola, and milk punch. All these many years later, this is still a firm tradition.
For me as a decorator and a historian, the assembly is the perfect fusion of decoration and tradition. I think a key aspect of most decoration is the creation of physical elements that mark occasions, everything from entering a house with a welcoming ornamental front door and arranging a front hall in a convivial fashion; or, it can be the creation of more singular moments of decoration, such as the laying of a wreath. I offer the assembly as an example of how decoration and ceremony helps to build a greater community by providing a common activity and focus.
This year, if it is a beautiful day, there may be upwards of 50 people in attendance. If it rains, it may only be 4 or 5 of us. However, there will be an assembly, and we will be pilgrims in our own right, considering the far reaching meaning of Thanksgiving then and now.
Last week Faith Meadows interviewed me for her National Public Radio show. She wanted to know about our annual gathering. You can hear the interview (it is about 27 minutes into the show).
God willing, we will continue our gathering until 2021, the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrim’s first Thanksgiving feast. I hope one year you all will attend.