West Coast pilgrims: What if Spanish beat Pilgrims to punch?
It's Thanksgiving time - time to dress in colorful clothes, feast on fresh oranges and grapefuit, break out the castanets and drums, and do some serious drinking and dancing.
Something wrong with the scenario? Not if Thanksgiving had evolved on the West Coast instead of the East.
Imagine if the Spanish missionaries somehow beat the Pilgrims to the punch.
The Spanish had plenty of reasons to celebrate: They had established a string of missions up the West Coast, they got along fairly well with their Indian neighbors ... and they didn't have any trouble at all getting through the winter.
The Spanish and Indians would have had a celebration to put the austere Pilgrims to shame.
"It would have been elaborate," says the Rev. Maurice McNamee, director of Cupples House and professor of history at St. Louis University.
"One of the most striking things about that culture is the visual way they celebrate feasts. It's a vital part of their way of life."
Forget the Pilgrims' solemn, Puritan religious services and sparsely decorated churches. The Spanish and Indians would have celebrated Thanksgiving with all the pomp of a high Mass in the Roman Catholic Church on festival days.
The offering would become a visual feast, McNamee says. Gaily dressed Spanish and Indians would join in a procession to carry baskets of citrus fruits and harvest bounty up aisles lined with the brilliant colors of fresh flowers.
"It would all be part of a grand festival," McNamee says. "They would have flowers, imagery, the liturgy of Mass - with explosions going off to let everyone know what they're doing.
"That's in contrast to no imagery and white-washed walls."
The western Indians, converts to Catholicism, would have danced in the religious celebration to the music of simple wind instruments made of gourds, rattles and drums. "Indians had their own dance - and still do," McNamee says.
After the service, the Spanish might have grabbed a few castanets and guitars and joined in with their Andalusian dances.
The clothing would be as glorious as the dancing - not like the somber attire of the Pilgrims, McNamee says.
"You would have had much more colorful kind of clothing both from the Spanish, because they come from a Mediterranean culture, and from the Indians," he says. "The clothing would be hand-woven and dyed - elaborately dyed, beautifully designed clothing. Not black and white."
The elaborate designs of the Meso-Americans and South Americans made their way up the coast, McNamee says. By contrast, the Indians the Pilgrims knew were nomads and much less civilized, he says.
But at least one thing would unite the west coast Thanksgiving with the eastern variety: turkey. The native American bird could have been served up at both feasts; the side dish, of course, would be those native sweet potatoes.
But there the similarity would end.
The Pilgrims would have been hard pressed to find any fruit other than cranberries and perhaps apples. But the Spanish would have myriads of sun-ripened citrus fruits - after all, they brought them to the New World.
But there probably wouldn't be much orange juice served at the Thanksgiving meal.
"You didn't have the Puritan attitude toward drink," McNamee says.
Pulque, a spirit made from the fermented juice of the maguey plant, would have flowed like a river. "It goes right to your head," he says.
And the Spanish and Indians probably would have enjoyed its effects, McNamee says. "Probably too much," he says. "Generally those things ended up in a debacle."
That spirit of celebration still permeates celebrations south of the border. The dances, music and merriment of the Spanish and Indians have staying power, McNamee says.
"What do we have left that's a continuation from the Pilgrims?" he asked.
"Pumpkin pie, I guess."
West Citizen Journal (St. Louis, Mo.), Nov. 26, 1987