When was the last time you thought about the origins of the holiday we’re all about to celebrate?
The first Thanksgiving didn’t happen on the fourth Thursday in November, and it wasn’t even called Thanksgiving! Rather, it took place sometime between late September and mid-November in 1621 to celebrate a successful harvest. And indeed, those folks had something to celebrate.
The Mayflower had departed Plymouth, England in September of 1620 with 102 passengers who were all religious separatists seeking a home in the New World where they could practice as they wished. Their journey lasted 66 days -- significantly longer than any six-hour flight in a modern jet across the Atlantic -- and ended near the tip of Cape Cod. A month later, they crossed the Massachusetts Bay and set up their new village, also called Plymouth.
Through that first winter, most of the colonists actually stayed aboard their ship, where they suffered from outbreaks of scurvy and other disease. Only half of those original passengers and crew lived to see the New England spring. In that first spring, the Native American Squanto -- who had been kidnapped by an English sea captain, sold into slavery, escaped to London, then returned to his homeland on an expedition -- taught the Pilgrims how to cultivate corn, tap trees for maple syrup, and avoid poisonous plants. This was a crucial blessing to the settlers who were weakened by malnutrition and sickness.
When their first harvest of corn was successful, a celebratory feast was organized, and invitations were made to group’s Native American allies. That three-day celebration is now remembered as America’s first “thanksgiving.” According to Tom Begley of the Plimoth Plantation, just more than 50 colonists were in attendance including 22 men, four married women, and about 25 children. These were the lucky ones who had made it through the rough winter upon entering a new world. Seventy-eight percent of the original women who arrived died within the first three months.
For those settlers, I can only imagine that while the harvest was certainly a thing to celebrate, even more so was their very survival. And I can’t help but see parallels between that first thanksgiving and what we’re preparing for this November. While modern traditions include large family gatherings, loads of food, and a gluttonous amount of football, this year is inherently different. This year, more tables will have empty seats due to the pandemic -- both because people have perished and because many will wisely choose not to travel or congregate in groups. More people will be alone this year than have been during this holiday for nearly 400 years.
But instead of dwelling on the differences this Thanksgiving will bring, I suggest we look more closely at the similarities. Those first pilgrims were looking for healing in a time marked by great division in beliefs and insecurity about the future. And in that need for healing, they found a reason to celebrate. In our own time, post-election, there are lots of folks today who also need healing. Many people are reflecting on what they believe and in whom to place their trust. Many people are nervous about the future and what it holds, and just as many are upset about where we’ve been. And many are reasonably worried about their very survival.
Just as in that first celebration in 1621, this year’s Thanksgiving should be as much about healing as about giving thanks. Instead of cooking extravagant feasts and lazing around the television, this year my family will be spending more time on the phone and on Zoom connecting to the people we wish we could be with in person. I plan to pray for the healing of our nation and our people. I plan to give all the thanks I can that I have survived this pandemic so far, and for the strength to persevere the winter to come. And I will pray for patience, knowing that healing takes time.
Bless, O Lord, thy gifts to our use and us to thy service; for Christ’s sake. Amen
Tenor in the CSMSG Choir