26 November 2015

Thoughts on that First Thanksgiving

The only surviving account of what we call that first Thanksgiving celebration comes to us from the quill of one Edward Winslow, Jr. Born in 1595, Winslow was a printer by trade and among the company of the Separatists - known to us as the Pilgrims - who thought the Church of England too much resembled the Catholic Church and left Plymouth, England aboard the Mayflower in September of 1620 to establish the Puritan way of life in the New World.

Though the exact dates are unknown to us, the feast that we call the First Thanksgiving took place over three days sometime between September 21 and November 11, 1621, most likely at the end of September. Those who enjoyed the feast included the fifty remaining Separatists (the other fifty Pilgrims had already died) and some 90 members of the Wampanoag tribe who happened upon the celebrations of the Separatists and joined them.

Writing from Plymouth on 11 December 1621 to a "loving, and old friend," Edward Winslow, Jr. described the festivities accompanying that First Thanksgiving:
...our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the company almost a week, at which time amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit [whom Winslow had earlier befriended], with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain, and others.
It might seem striking that so very little is known about an event that plays such a central role in the imagination of the American people and how we think of ourselves, but this is often the way with such foundational stories. If more were known about that First Thanksiving, so many of our mythic stories purporting to express the core values of what would become the United States of America - freely sharing our bounty with others, being but one of them - could not have been added to those three days of feasting.

It is not hard to see that many Americans today are turning in on themselves and openly expressing a desire to keep others out, as we see particularly with the plight of the Syrian refugees. The forebears of our Founding Fathers freely shared their food and benefits with the Wampanoag who came as invited guests. Nevertheless, the Separatists welcomed them and feasted with them.

The United States of America has always claimed to be a safe haven for those suffering injustice and whose liberty was threatened. We have not always lived up to this ideal, but we have also never relinquished this ideal. Today we have a momentous opportunity to live up to this ideal or to reject. If we are truly thankful, we will embrace it.

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