We are loathe in today’s society to attach any kind of religious connotation to our holidays for fear of derision from a societal modernist post religious view of celebration. Thanksgiving is about the food, Christmas about the gifts, and Easter about the rabbit. It was not always the case; the very real hand of Divine Providence was an accepted companion to all daily events and had particular focus around communal celebrations. The basic challenge to survival was a very real threat for most human beings in past centuries with none of the conveniences of today. The need to find and develop consistent food sources, decent shelter, protection from the elements and hostile humans facing the same life challenges underwrote every life story prior to our modern conveniences and security. The power of a Divine Being, by whom the forces of nature and fate were directed to determine who would succeed and who would succumb, was considered an inalienable fact of existence. No action taken by man or nature was assumed to be free of the guiding unseen hand of the Divinity. This powerful view of life allowed the most amazing leaps of faith and risks to be taken with an assumption that the outcome was foreordained and therefore not to be reasonably feared in the believer. The story of the first Thanksgiving in particular is an intense example of the power of faith to lead people through great challenge, great sacrifice, and ultimate internal triumph regardless of the external outcome.
The people who celebrated the first recorded communal thanksgiving in North America believed themselves locked to the vagaries of Divine Providence. The Separatists, or Pilgrims as they were much later referred to by, were by very definition separate from the mores of their current society. Practicing a particularly fierce reductionist and devotional brand of Protestantism, they found little capacity to get along with the great majority of their fellow Englishmen and the state driven Anglican religion. They felt truly separated from the trappings of organized religion and felt it got between each individual and their intimate relationship with God. In 1600, denying the ultimate ecclesiastical role of the head of the Anglican Church, the King of England, was a hanging offense, and the future of the Separatists to maintain their views and remain loyal English subjects was heading to a cataclysm. Leaders of the faith succeeded at transitioning their flock into exile to Leiden, Netherlands in 1609, and for awhile found an adequate home of religious tolerance. Dutch society was, however, relatively mercantile driven and the morals were not for the taste of the Separatists sufficiently secured by the population. Missing the unifying culture of English society and unable to return home, the leaders of the Separatists petitioned the English government to allow them to establish a colony in the American wilderness and succeeded in 1619 with permission to secure land for settlement in the recently defined “New England” segment of the Virginia land tract. The group, 102 strong, eventually set sail September 16, 1620 on the second of two ships originally commissioned for the voyage, the Mayflower. The voyage was classic fall season North Atlantic drama with strong storms lashing the ship and at one moment nearly scuttling the trip due to a fractured main beam. Conditions on board were as was typical for that time, cramped and foul. With the loss of one passenger and the birth of one, the Mayflower sighted Cape Cod on November 13th, 1620, and eventually settled on a small land bluff at a site referred to as Plymouth selected and landed December 21th.
The year to follow held an all too real harshness and brutality that was typical for these early attempts at colonization. The Atlantic voyage had made most of the group disasterously sick with respiratory and gastric diseases as well as the ravages of scurvy, and only 47 colonists survived the harsh winter conditions. The Pakanoket native tribe with previously poor interactions with Europeans held a particular distaste for the efforts had colonization and persistently harassed the process. The knowledge base of the colonists for communal farming and survivorist instincts was limited, and food production was scarcely supportive, with hunting and fishing the primary means of calorie intake. The survivorship of the colony, much like the ill fated attempts earlier at Roanoke, Virginia were balanced on the thinnist wisp of fate, but the Separatists held an unquenchable trust in a God that held a personal pact with each man and woman who accepted Him, and trusted Providence to determine the outcome.
And by the thinnest of wisps, the outcome slowly became assured. A small but successful harvest was achieved in the late summer of 1621, and the health of the residual colonists stabilized. Having reached some cooperative relations with another local native tribe, the Wampanoag who supplied further game and fish, a determination by both to communally celebrate in thanksgiving for the bounty provided by a Divine Providence led to a shared harvest feast. The recording of the event by William Bradford, lead to the acknowledgement of this event being the sentinel moment of this eventual tradition of Thanksgiving.
In modern days we struggle to understand a world where people would willingly risk their comfort, their livelihood, their very survival on completely unknown hazards and risks of a harsh alien existence for the solitary advantage of confronting their internal faith in a way they could feel uninhibited. There are few modern examples and the complete acceptance of spiritual force in their lives more important than any material process seems alien in our current existence dominated by security and comfort. In the face of such sacrifice, though, a simple truth emerges of the more unsullied happiness achieved at that time for sheer miracle of existence and in many ways I envy their sense of internal well being. We would all do well to take a moment on this Thanksgiving, to take our own stock in the powers of Providence in our own lives that has brought us such comfort, such security, and such wonderful capacity to determine the direction of our own individual voyage through life on this beautiful planet.
As our pilgrim ancestor William Bradford so proudly spoke of this unique human spiritual voyage in words that resonate to this day:
Our faithers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this willdernes; but they cried unto ye Lord, and he heard their voyce, and looked on their adversitie, &c. Let them therfore praise ye Lord, because he is good, & his mercies endure for ever.…
To all of you, a happy and blessed Thanksgiving!