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The Courtship of Miles Standish. This image is from a George H. Boughton painting.
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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Christmas OnlineTM
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The Courtship of Miles Standish
from Family Christmas OnlineTM

Although Americans like to think of themselves as a practical, if not prosaic, people, our nation's culture has been swayed by influential poems on at least two occassions. In the mid-19th century, the popular poem "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" (Also known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas) helped to turn Christmas celebrations from an extended years'-end bash for adults into a family holiday. And not much later, Longfellow's The Courtship of Miles Standish helped to turn what was only a handful of sporadic local harvest festivals into the national holiday we call Thanksgiving.

As we pointed out in our article "Thanksgiving, Then, and Then, and Now," Thanksgiving didn't become a national holiday until over two centuries after the Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans declared a harvest festival that was attended by some ninety Native Americans.

One resource that rekindled interest in the festival was a discovery in 1854 - Bradford's early history of Plymouth colony. Originally written in 1641, it was lost for many decades, and finally rediscovered in Britain in 1854.

But an even larger influence was a popular poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In The Courtship of Miles Standish, Longfellow provides a fictionalized, account of how his ancestor, John Alden might have won the affections of his eventual bride, Pricilla Mullins.

In the poem, Plymouth's military leader, Myles Standish, asks Longfellow's own ancestor, John Alden, to court Priscilla Mullins on his behalf. This causes John to be torn between faithfulness to his best friend and the longings of his own heart. Longfellow's attempt to balance a romanticized view of Puritan values and culture with an epic exaggeration of Standish's the heroism and exploits captured the imagination of American readers.

As the Civil War approached, then began, Northern readers especially appreciated the chance to celebrate a "national history" that didn't revolve around Virginia, the first English colony of the New World and now their sworn enemies. In fact, Longfellow's "pilgrims" seemed like the kind of people that Northerners imagined themselves to be: moral, fairminded, brave, and hardworking. Interest in Plymouth colony exploded, documents were researched, and folks who could claim an ancestor on the Mayflower felt especially "American."

Interest in one early harvest festival that the Plymouth settlers had celebrated also grew until Abraham Lincoln established the last Thursday of November as a national day of thanksgiving and prayer in 1863.

Today The Courtship of Miles Standish is historically interesting, not for its romaticized account of life in the Plymouth colony, but because of the poem's influence on our national identity. It's also fun to read, especially aloud, to folks who don't already know how it comes out.

For this reason, we present the full text of the poem in several printable pages.

Whether you make the reading of this poem a part of your Thanksgiving traditions or not, we hope that you can make every day a day of Thanksgiving.

God grant you and your loved ones grace and a spirit of generosity and service this season.

Paul D. Race, Family Christmas Online

If you have any corrections, comments, or additions you would like to make about this article, please contact me and I will be glad to hear from you. God bless - Paul

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