Holiday Digest: Paper Pilgrims

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By Heather Hagen

A couple of vintage post-Depression 1930s folding tissue paper and cartoon pilgrims, one man, one woman, decorates a side table below the chicken hutch cabinet in the window-filled dining room of our family’s Bluebird Canyon home, like an autumn Adam and Eve.

The fold, unfold aspect of this couple made them easy to put away in my mom’s holiday decor drawer filled with some paper Halloween cats and witches and some Easter and Christmas cut-outs and cards.

By early November, the delicate tissue paper, geometrically diamond-folded pair were set out, a little nod to tradition, a little family folklore, a little holiday hello, a little history told from our past. The paper pilgrims had nobly decorated the Thanksgiving table at my grandparents’ wooden ranch-style home in the San Gabriel Valley year after year. From the 1940s to the late 1980s, the pilgrim mother and father stood tall as if to recount that famous classroom tale of America to the aunties, uncles, and cousins, just in case we forgot it. Now, they stand guard in Laguna Beach.

The brown and white attire has lightened to an off-white and burgundy-red color over decades. No forest or wood could shade, overshadow or mock their courageous lives. These earnest and smiling figures stand in the light, dignified and gloriously defiant. The clean yet strict chessboard nature of the clothing is there, plain as the daylight, for us to see. The white collars, the ample suit, the button-up dress, these uniforms seem to reflect the dynamic seriousness and almost religious nature of setting up this business of a country. The American colonies seem light years away from the California West Coast table-top these pilgrims are standing on today. These pious ones from long ago who came to a new land, afoot on Plymouth Rock.

It was about establishing a life that was a galaxy away from the Vatican councils and the royal thrones of Europe, far away from their control, a little closer to freedom. “That’s one small step for man (and woman), one giant leap for mankind.”

One nation under God we would be; we would try to be. Tucked under the paper woman’s right arm, there is a small blue cartoon Bible, something old, something new, a little reminder note of sorts from the Divine in hand, a little “don’t you forget about Me.” The challenge was presented, a motherly reminder of goodness, a string around the finger.

Now, God did not have a pen the day that Bible was written, but I think if he did, he might agree that creating a new nation focused on divine love and freedom and based on unalienable rights under this principle granted by Him, seemed to be a pretty darn good plan. Natural Law seems frank and forward. It seems fair. Get us off these ships, out of this stormy Atlantic Ocean. Give us our land legs. Let us thrive and grow to become strong like the trees.

Musket in one hand, held on by a thin piece of transparent scotch tape, turkey in the other hand, the pilgrim man in his black captain hat seems to be showing us our own independent and autonomous spirit here.

We can debate if too much resource gathering was done at the end of the barrel of this gun. Maybe this is a discussion or prayer to take to church, to temple, to synagogue, to mosque, to the beach to meditate on. This delicate challenge of how to move forward to provide for oneself, one’s family, and one’s nation without throwing off the natural balance was—and always is—the summons.

“With freedom comes responsibility,” they say. Well, the Georgia Guidestones fell over in 2022, actually bulldozed over, to be precise, so I suppose it’s up to us now to make our own path, to be our own guides. Freedom to live off the land, freedom to love, freedom to raise a family, freedom to create a beautiful and abundant life. These pilgrims created all this and many more stories. Not all were good ones, the black and white text, the living at the edges of print, the yin and the yang.

These fragile paper pilgrims will stand tall, proud yet humble and loving on this Thanksgiving Day. The squash is now roasting in the oven. Sitting at the table, I gaze out left past the eucalyptus tree toward Bluebird Canyon Farms, to the right, the sea and Catalina Island.

I am deeply grateful for this couple, this land, this past, these lessons, these questions, this moment. God bless these paper pilgrims, and God bless America.

Heather Hagen is a writer who grew up in the Laguna Beach of the 1970s and 1980s. In addition to her California birth claim, she has lived overseas for many years in both Japan and France.

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