Plymothians invented Forefather’s Day in 1769 to mark the anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims, and to emphasize Plymouth Colony’s independent origins in response to what they felt was continued oppression by the English Crown. At different times the event has involved a ball, dinner, orations, and church services. Speakers have included the likes of Daniel Webster and Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. For most of the last 200 years, the event has been hosted by the Pilgrim Society, whose Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth is the mecca for everyone interested in early New England history.
The date for the Forefathers’ Day anniversary has evolved into 21 December, except when that date falls on a Sunday, as it did this year, in which case the dinner is held on Saturday the 20th. Several hundred members of the Pilgrim Society, their guests, and other Pilgrimphiles gather for a banquet dinner and the enlightenment of a speaker. Before dinner there is the authentic cup of succotash made in the old tradition. During dinner the trustees of the Pilgrim Society are introduced and gather around the piano to sing, with gusto, and accompanied by the entire gathering, the full four verses of the hymn The Breaking Waves Dashed High. Trust me, the only way to sing that hymn is with gusto.
This year’s speaker was Ric Burns, brother of and collaborator with Ken Burns of The Civil War documentary fame. Ric is producing The Pilgrims: A Documentary Film, which is scheduled for broadcast next Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims will tell the story through William Bradford and his remarkable manuscript, Of Plimoth Plantation, with its equally fascinating history of having been stolen from New England during the Revolution, discovered later in England, and restored to America a century later to be embraced as the representative story of the founding of our country. The Forefathers’ Day audience was treated to a sneak preview of some tantalizing rough-cut scenes.
William Bradford is portrayed by Welch actor Roger Rees, most familiar to us here in Boston from his role as tycoon Robin Colcord in Cheers. Rees hypnotically portrays Bradford in his last years reflecting upon the events of the settlement of Plymouth Colony as he realizes that Plymouth is destined to be swallowed up by the more successful Massachusetts Bay Colony in Boston and forgotten. Burns wants to tell the story of the real human beings who were the Pilgrims, and to explore why they are the ones we now remember while others have been forgotten. It seems certain to be a fascinating series.