Thanksgiving might be my favorite time to be an American. I can feel the MLK Day spirit, I get choked up at the national anthem on Independence Day, but how wonderful that before all this, before the United States of America was even a gleam in the Founding Fathers’ eye, there was a celebration for giving thanks. And what a story to celebrate! This week I got to teach about Thanksgiving, and in retelling the story I realized anew just what strength and courage we honor in these humble American heroes.
The year is 1620. Enter 102 Pilgrims who’ve wanted all their lives to worship and raise their families without closed doors and hushed voices. Add 30 crew members and a traumatic 65-day Atlantic crossing. “The middle of nowhere” is an understatement to describe their landing site, and most of them do not leave the boat for another few months aside from some construction, scouting, and laundry.
Coincidentally, they have landed on an abandoned community’s already-cleared farmland, complete with stores of corn left to honor the dead. The starving Pilgrims are almost dead themselves, so why not help themselves, right? But sickness is rampant, leaving only half the colonists alive by Spring.
Grieving and desperate, they now receive the most impossibly unexpected gift. Their first native American visitor greets them in English, and soon they have a peaceful, cooperative relationship with their new neighbors (who were gracious enough to overlook the unscrupulous desecration of their burial grounds). Only with the help of Squanto and his kin do the Pilgrims gain the skills they need to survive and thrive in this New World. I can’t get over how bizarre this is. First, that Squanto even survives slavery in England and a return to his homeland. Simple European infections wiped out whole tribes of native Americans, but somehow Squanto lives in the Old World for years without contracting anything deadly. Then, he succeeds in returning to America, and happens to settle exactly where the Mayflower inadvertently landed.
The first successful harvest is more than sufficient cause for a party. The Pilgrims’ community is stable and growing, and by God’s grace they have received a better welcome to the New World than they possibly could have asked for. If that doesn’t call for pumpkin pie, I don’t know what does.
During my Thanksgiving lessons, I was surprised by how little my students knew about this holiday. “Turkey . . . ?” was the only concrete detail they could provide. In this way, it might be the most American holiday we have. There’s no way to commercialize and export it. No one but grocery stores, poultry producers, and gas stations really make much money off it. Even Hollywood hasn’t touched it much. And it’s so historically rooted that no one else in the world really wants it. I wish I could say that giving thanks, not just Thanksgiving, was an American tradition. But today I’m thankful for these American ancestors to remember, for a story worth retelling, and for one day marked on every calendar to practice gratefulness.