Thanksgiving began in the fall of 1621, as a celebration of survival. There was a harvest, and there had been blessings. The newcomers to the New World had clung to their dearly bought foothold.
Plymouth governor William Bradford invited neighboring Indians, who faced survival issues themselves, to join the Pilgrims for a three-day festival. They played and feasted, and lobbied and politicked, delighted and grateful for the bounty their small community enjoyed, perched at the edge of a vast, unknown continent, an insular outpost thousands of ocean miles from home.
In England, the Puritans were not the big deal they are to us. Associated with Cromwell, they had a moment, but that was all. “In England,” the late Jacques Barzun explains, “[the Puritan] wore pointed hats, spoke through his nose, sported names like Praisegod Barebones, and after killing the king ruled a country deprived of gaiety … [in the United States] the Puritan settlers, condemned for their ethos, are nevertheless admired as the Pilgrim Fathers — and credited with much that they did not do.”
By the end of the 19th century, Thanksgiving Day had become an institution throughout New England. President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed it a national holiday in 1863.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, writing after Lincoln established the holiday, called it “our honest Puritan festival.” How can he have missed the way those last two words clashed? He said Thanksgiving was “spreading, not as formerly, as a kind of opposition Christmas, but as a welcome prelude and adjunct, a brief interval of good cheer and social rejoicing, heralding the longer season of feasting and rest from labor in the month that follows.” I suppose he means it’s like the pre-Christmas sale days that are part of modern mall life.
But on that autumn day in 1621, the Pilgrims found their pewter tankards half full of blessings from their dangerous but promising first year in the new place. Their guests, uneasy but curious, watched for clues concerning what all this might mean for their future. For all who sat together at the Thanksgiving table, there was uncertainty, but there was good news also.
And, what about us? Like those early celebrants, our small band has been sadly diminished, as it is each year. We have counted untimely losses of the dearest family, friends, and neighbors, and damaged lives, and gravely wounded families. The news has not been always so good.
With our Western, democratic culture under assault and our sons and daughters under arms half a world away, we contend viciously with one another too often at home, and wound ourselves as we do. Perhaps it’s a struggle saying thanks this year.
But, it is enough this time to say that our Island home is beautiful. That we are fiercely protective of it. That our community is mostly neighborly. And often generous. That we are granted do-overs. That few decisions are final. That we acknowledge our great obligation of deference and respect for those who fight for us, and for their leaders. And, bewildering as the year has been, there is nevertheless always a clear reason and a priceless reward for giving thanks.