Human history is a muddy road which leads us into the present and I am more than aware that my shoes are caked in it. All of ours are. Though I will not let what was done yesterday rob me of my gratitude for the life of freedom I presently enjoy today, I can’t ignore it either. There were severe implications for the Colonists landing on America’s shores Nearly 400 years ago. Living, breathing, walking, talking, hearing, seeing, feeling, crying, shouting, hugging, hitting, hating, loving, fearing, hoping human beings just like you and me died of famine, disease and worst of all – war…some closing their eyes in pain to a world that seemed to hate them for no other reason than they were ‘other’. What I cannot be party to is the editorializing of human history by groups of people pitting themselves against other groups of people. No, not all of the Colonists were good…but not all of them were evil either. Likewise, not all Native “Americans” were evil…but not all of them were good. There is no pure race. No unblemished culture. We are all flawed human beings subject to fear and irrational behavior bent toward self-interest. But today, we don’t celebrate that. Today, we give Thanks. I know this sounds like it’s ripped from the transcript of a Miss America pageant but – though hidden under turkeys, parades, pigskin and history’s ashes, though perhaps only for a moment…stands before us an event that serves as the symbol (not the reason) for us stopping to join hands:
So the story goes: Upon arriving at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620, the disease-riddled, malnourished Pilgrims from England were met with the hospitality of the indigenous Wampanoag people, who without, they surely would have died. The Wampanoag, needing protection from neighboring tribes, partnered with the English, granting them land to settle in and taught them how to survive life in the New World. At the end of their first successful harvest in which they employed the farming techniques taught to them by their new neighbors, the Colonists hosted the Wampanoags for a three-day Thanksgiving celebration. “Red” and “White” feasted together in harmony and in gratitude toward their Creator.
Fact or legend or probably somewhere in between, it is no mystery why this story of the “First Thanksgiving” endures. It was the Civil War entrenched Abraham Lincoln who stamped it on our calendars in 1863 (just under 2 years before the war ended) as a move toward national unity. His Thanksgiving Proclamation contains these words:
“I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”
Peace, harmony, tranquility and Union….
Isn’t this what we all desire? To be One…even with our differences?
Yes, there’s a ton to be thankful for. But, there’s more going on in my own heart than gratitude. However that first Thanksgiving went down, whether the story has been romanticized or not, it confronts me with deeper questions: Who is welcome at my table? Who isn’t? Who will I join hands with in giving Thanks? Who won’t I? It seems to me that thankfulness is moot if not shared. And isn’t the Thanksgiving dinner table a motley spread of humans? I mean…when we consider who’s eating with us, aren’t some of the people gathered around the table, though family, very unlike us? But we love them still…
As 19th Century American writer Sarah Josepha Hale, the ‘godmother of Thanksgiving’, puts it,
“[Thanksgiving] calls together the dispersed members of the family circle, and brings plenty, joy and gladness to the dwellings of the poor and lowly…bringing us oftener together, releases us from the estrangement and coolness consequent on distance and political alienations; each year multiplies our ties of relationship and friendship. How can we hate our Mississippi brother-in-law? and who is a better fellow than our wife’s uncle from St. Louis?…Everything that contributes to bind us in one vast empire together, to quicken the sympathy that makes us feel from the icy North to the sunny South that we are one family, each a member of a great and free Nation, not merely the unit of a remote locality, is worthy of being cherished…”