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A Thanksgiving toast

IF YOU THINK we live in a puritanical nation, don’t blame the Pilgrims. As it turns out, they enjoyed sex and booze as much as anyone, or at least embraced them far more than many of their predecessors.

In “Desperate Crossing: The Untold Story of the Mayflower,” scheduled to air Thursday night on the History Channel, the settlers of Plymouth Colony are shown to be more colorful than conventional wisdom has it. Within the context of marriage, sex was viewed as more than just a means for procreation. And because of the scarcity of drinking water on the Mayflower, the beverage of choice for adults and children alike was beer.

“If you were to talk to the man on the street about what Puritans were like, you’d hear that they were killjoys,” said Francis J. Bremer, a professor of history at Millersville University in Pennsylvania and one of the historians who appears in the show. The Puritans weren’t exactly hedonists -- hedonists didn’t arrive in New England until after the 2004 World Series -- but Bremer says there is “a certain amount of distortion of reality” in the view that they were scolds and teetotalers.

The Puritans may have wanted to reform the Church of England, and the Pilgrims may have wanted to separate from it altogether -- but not necessarily because it was too restrictive. In fact, the documentary suggests that the opposite may be true. According to Bremer, Puritans saw sex as an important part of companionship within marriage, hardly a traditional view at the time.

For the Pilgrims, pleasures were few. Though just over 100 set sail on the Mayflower in the summer of 1620, scores died from scurvy and other diseases during the first months at Plymouth. Only about 50 sat down for that first Thanksgiving dinner in the fall of 1621. So think of that if you feel too many relatives have invited themselves over for Thanksgiving dinner. As for the menu, best to do what the Pilgrims did: Serve beer.

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