In these wearing times, we find ourselves gathering, like our European forebears did nearly four centuries ago, with no sure sense of what lies ahead. Thanksgiving began in the fall of 1621 as a celebration of survival, certainly an occasion for a feast, although brutal winter and a fresh challenge to survival threatened.
There was a harvest, and there had been blessings. The newcomers to the New World had clung to their dearly bought foothold. Plymouth Colony 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. They mourned those who had died in the cruel circumstances that had confronted the newcomers to what would eventually become our neighborhood. Like us, the 17th century celebrants had been through a lot. They were optimistic, but they could count on no clear sailing ahead.
Dlighted and grateful for the modest bounty their small community enjoyed, perched as it was at the edge of a vast, unknown continent, an insular outpost thousands of ocean miles from home, they believed they had been blessed.
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 a fixture 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 meant it’s like the pre-Christmas sale days, which apparently begin in the wee hours Friday, throttles through Christ’s birth and Santa’s visit, on to the January markdowns 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 futures. For all who sat together at the Thanksgiving table, there was good news, mixed with grave uncertainty.
And, for us? Far better to recall the mood that prevailed that first Thanksgiving Day than to be washed away in the commercial tide that is about to sweep ashore. 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. We’ve tallied damaged lives, and gravely wounded families. The news has not always been so good. With our Western democratic culture under assault, our sons and daughters under arms worlds away, and our future economic health continually in doubt, we contend viciously with one another too often at home, and harm each other as we do.
Perhaps it’s a struggle saying thanks this year, but it’s a struggle worth winning. It may be 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. We can fix things. That no 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 this year and the two or three before have been, there is nevertheless always a clear reason and a priceless reward for giving thanks.