Marking the Pilgrims’ North American Landing in Provincetown on November 11, 1620, each year at sundown on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is the Annual Lighting of the Pilgrim Monument. Festoons of more than 3,100 lights will remain lit through 6 January 2014, acknowledging the duration of the so-called Pilgrim’s anchoring in what’s become Provincetown harbor.
The monument, built between 1907 and 1910, was prompted by Plymouth, Massachusetts’ success in monetizing their Pilgrim history through tourism. Entrepreneurial Provincetown residents, feeling cheated by the fact that the Pilgrims landed on their shore first, organized to grandly outshine Plymouth with a monument of greater curiosity than the paltry “Plymouth Rock.”
Even more apocryphal than Plymouth Rock (and Plymouth Rock is hard to beat; but let’s face it, in the realm of fake history Pilgrims are the gift that keep giving), the Pilgrim Monument makes no reference to either Puritan or local history. The design, by Willard T. Sears, emerged from a competition and is based on the Torre del Mangia in Seina, Italy. In a sense, the Pilgrim Monument wasn’t designed by Sears at all, but rather is a revisiting of a design by Agostino and Agnolo de Siena.
I’ve never found a satisfying account of why this design was chosen, but I speculate that it was the design most conducive to military use as both an observation outlook and theoretical launching point for ordnance (inside the tower there are ramps leading to the top, rather than stairs, which supports the idea of moving ordnance to the turrets). Provincetown had become a site of serious military strategic importance beginning with the Civil War, and by the early 20th century, the US government had made several significant interventions into town affairs (government construction of a wooden boardwalk parallel to the sand trap that would become Commercial Street prompted a generation of town discord). Given the Federal role in funding nearly half the monument’s costs, it seems likely that influence was exercised.
Oddly, at the time of the Monument’s construction, Boston already had a reproduction of the exact same tower, as part of its central fire station.
Veneration of Pilgrim ancestors and the overall sketchiness of Thanksgiving generally give me a headache, but I think it’s important to underscore that the festoons of lights on the monument are not intended as a stylized Christmas tree. They mark a historical moment. Problematic in countless ways, looked at closely the moment is revealing. From Dorothy Bradford’s likely suicide (by jumping from the Mayflower into the Bay) to the looting of Native American food reserves, the Pilgrim foray into the lands of the outer Cape tell us a lot about who these people were, and portend much about their ideological affect on the continent. It’s worth our time to use these weeks to reflect on both the horror their presence would bring to the people who inhabited these lands and the concomitant destabilizing of European power that their resistance was fomenting. These were not benign people; they were political radicals and religious zealots. They changed the world.
And it’s probably important to remember that Pilgrims would hate and persecute you because of the ways that you choose to live. There’s basically nothing about contemporary America that conforms to their view of righteousness. It’s easy to think about this simplistically, through the lens of fornicators and sodomites, but we’re endlessly alien to them. While contemporary Christian warriors sharpen the knife of their righteousness by whining endlessly about the “war on Christmas,” the Pilgrims–our first Christian warriors–viewed Christmas as immoral and outlawed it. Undoubtedly they’d dismiss most contemporary American Christians–from the most liberal to the most fundamentalist–as the damned. While we might be awed by their fortitude, there’s no reason for us to venerate these people. They were xenophobes, isolationists who sought to create a new world governed by their reading of their god’s word. They do not reflect the best of us.
Yesterday’s gale dimmed my enthusiasm for standing on High Pole Hill, waiting for a foggy lighting. So I skipped town early. Last year’s lighting (at which the above photo was taken), was one of the more magical moments of 2012.