Historically, we’ve accepted a very whitewashed version of what happened in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621. The story we were told as children was that the friendly local Wampanoag tribe swooped in to teach the struggling pilgrims how to survive in the New World, culminating in a three-day feast of thanksgiving. I bet most of us were actors in this very play in kindergarten, wearing a construction-paper headband with attached feathers if we were playing the kindly Native American or a black construction-paper cylinder with a yellow buckle on the front to signify that we were a tired and overwhelmed pilgrim. Here is how you plant corn using a fish! The racially insensitive play culminated in the entire cast sitting at a table laden with plastic food, holding hands and singing the Shaker song ‘Tis a Gift To Be Simple.
In reality, Native Americans suffered greatly with the arrival of the colonists. In the centuries that followed that first jovial feast, the settlers drove the Native Americans from their land, slaughtered many, and virtually exterminated those left through sickness and disease. To this day, many Native Americans argue that the holiday celebrates the genocide of its people and, since 1970, officially recognize the fourth Thursday in November as a Day of Mourning.
But at its core, the day was – and is – intended to celebrate immigrants and friendship, a day asking us to honor our bountiful blessings. It is a religious celebration for some and a secular observance for others. While Christmas can often seem like a shallow show of material excess, Thanksgiving usually feels a bit more emotionally nourishing, focused more on what we have rather than what we want.
But what to do when feeling grateful feels like a challenge? The whole world is currently struggling with health, financial, and emotional concerns. It’s hard to see beauty and joy when we’re terrified and worried.
How do we give thanks when a loved one is on a ventilator, fighting for their very life?
How do we give thanks when we’ve lost our jobs?
How do we give thanks when there are children who are hungry, abused, neglected, anxious, or scared?
How do we give thanks when the hurricanes and wildfires are destroying our homes?
How do we give thanks when we are worried about our fundamental rights being stripped from us?
How do we give thanks when we do not – cannot – know what the future holds?
We give thanks anyway. Because that’s the real parable of Plymouth.
In the attempt to remember the exploitation of the early Native Americans, it’s easy to forget that those pilgrims weren’t living their best lives either. Those courageous settlers left everyone and everything they knew so that they could worship a God of their understanding. It took over two months of sickness, starvation, and storm for the Mayflower to ferry 102 intrepid voyagers across the Atlantic. That first terrible winter, nearly half of those pilgrims died from malnutrition, disease, and lack of shelter. Of the 18 married, female pilgrims, 13 died because they gave what little food they had to their children. It is an extreme understatement to say that it was a truly hard year. Yet in spite of those incredible hardships, they set aside time to be grateful. They celebrated in that moment what was right instead of focusing on what was wrong.
We can empathize for sure. Many of us are grappling with what a truly hard year feels like. As we look around our own table this year, there are certain to be empty seats. Kentucky has now lost over 10,000 souls to covid. Over 765,000 are dead in our nation as of this writing. The pilgrims had lots of empty seats too, but they chose instead to be grateful for the people who were there.
Maybe you’re skipping the big feast because your uncle still isn’t vaccinated. Maybe you’re celebrating because you can actually gather again after a year off. Thanksgiving might feel different this year, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take time to think about what is still right in our lives.
The word thanks comes from the Latin word tongēre, meaning “to think.” It’s a verb, an intentional action. We are being asked to think and give thanks, to acknowledge what we have instead of complaining about what we don’t.