customs and traditions

On Thanks

I have no story to tell today.

Looking into my own past, Thanksgiving has always been a warm fuzzy day ushering in the holiday season in the United States. But stories? I have plenty to say about Christmas. I can come up with stories about the New Year, Valentine’s Day, and even Halloween, but Thanksgiving just tends to get plopped right there as a place to stop and breathe between ghosts and goblins and shop, shop, shopping. 

Ugh.

But I digress.

I LOVE Thanksgiving. I especially love the history behind Thanksgiving in the United States.  

I’m not talking about Mayflower Pilgrims and Native Americans; I’m talking about finding opportunities to be thankful even when there doesn’t seem to be much to be thankful for.  

Take that so-called first Thanksgiving for instance. When the Mayflower arrived in Massachusetts Bay, it carried 102 people. Twelve months later, their numbers had been cut in half. Not a good beginning for people seeking freedom from oppression. But despite loss of friends and family, those 52 pilgrims did have much to be grateful for. 

They survived a long hard winter full of hunger, disease, and death. They were lucky to have been aided by Tisquantum (Squanto) who helped them learn to survive in their new surroundings and to forge an alliance, albeit uneasy, with the neighboring Wampaoag tribe. Squanto was one of the last remaining members of the Patuxet tribe which had been decimated by European diseases, and the Wampanoag hadn’t fared much better for the same reason. For both groups, the fall of 1621 brought in a decent harvest with the hope for better times to come.

Thanksgiving in the United States is often thought of to as a uniquely American tradition stemming from that harvest celebration in 1621. But harvest celebrations were really nothing new.  As long as there have been growing seasons and winters, people around the world have been celebrating harvests, and the pilgrims were actually participating in a centuries-old tradition originating with the Celtic Pagans called Lammas. It’s also probable that Squanto and the Wampanoag were sharing their own customary harvest celebrations with the newcomers.

Despite what we were taught in grammar schools, the Massachussetts Bay celebration was probably not as peaceful as we are prone to believe. Several accounts tell of gunfire and threats resulting in bloody skirmishes within a very short time following their three day meal. Within a generation there was nothing left of the Patuxet people, and the Wampanoag people had been pushed nearly to extinction between warfare with European settlers and neighboring tribes. The peace and harmony of the fall of 1621 was short-lived.

The celebration of harvest may have waxed and waned depending on the size and qualtity of the harvest, but the idea of finding reasons to be grateful caught hold in Colonial America. At the end of the Revolutionary war. George Washington proclaimed the first official day of Thanksgiving, but that was a one-time thing. But by 1863, several states in the U.S. had officially adopted annual Thanksgiving holidays.

Thinking back to those early colonial days when two clashing cultures came together to celebrate survival in the hardest of times, I’d like to say that “first Thanksgiving” was the inspiration for Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving declaration in the midst of Civil War. 

Just that word, thanksgiving, has been inspirational to me in years when I felt like I didn’t have much to celebrate. Instead of lamenting the commercialization of Christmas and dreading the upcoming holiday season, or even decrying the inequity of fate and ignorance leading to the maltreatment of remaining Native American people, I have learned to embrace the opportunity to share a meal with friends and family, and find opportunities to give thanks.

Because there is always something to be thankful for. 

 

6 thoughts on “On Thanks”

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