A harrowing Atlantic crossing followed by a winter of intense suffering and death would have threatened even the heartiest soul’s ability to find good in the world. Throw in memories of half a population, beloved family members and shipmates, fellow adventurers and happiness pursuers, hopeful dreamers and determined over-comers, lost too soon to a harsh, unknown world and many today would jump over the edge of despair. Many of us would be tempted to fall and not find a reason to rise, never mind celebrate, again. Yet America’s first European settlers did just that. They celebrated Thanksgiving!
Instead of succumbing to suffering beyond what most modern American minds can comprehend, the Plymouth Pilgrims aided by the Wampanoag Indians came together in 1621 to celebrate the first American Thanksgiving. Today, we celebrate the holiday with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie while early settlers and their Native American saviors more likely dined on venison, swan, lobster, and grapes; however, the differences between modern celebrations and the event that sparked them four hundred years ago extend well beyond what covers each table.
Thanksgiving: Finding Grace in Hard Times
One hundred and two settlers left England’s shores in search of life in an unknown world. They faced disease, hunger, bitter cold, and what must have been an incredible fear of the unknown in the hope of finding freedom and purpose. Half of them would never live to see that hope. The half that survived may have wished for death on occasion – or maybe that is my interjecting what I might have wished had I been part of that crew. Chances are though I would not have made the survivor’s list. 78% of women died before that first Thanksgiving. Their graves are not lined up in neatly placed rows where loved ones came to visit and lay flowers. Most bodies would have been tossed overboard in howling wind to be sucked beneath frigid seas before being devoured by sea creatures or slammed by angry, foaming, steely seas against New England’s rocky coast.
At this time of year, I often wonder about those early settlers and their Native American helpers. I wonder what they were thinking and how they found the fortitude to go on in the face of such suffering. I wonder how they got up day after day knowing toil and trauma replaced strong, capable husbands, loving, nurturing wives, and laughing, mischievous children as constant companions.
Death and early death were much more a part of the lives of early settlers than it is for us today, but do not imagine that lessened suffering. We tend to dismiss some of their pain by saying early settlers Married for convenience and status, but we cannot forget that they were very real people with human emotions, feelings, hopes, and dreams. We cannot dismiss or dishonor the sacrifice of a grieving, postpartum mother who handed over her tiny child to be placed in a grave we will never see, the teen who watched his beloved suffer a death that ended his hopes of joining her in holy Matrimony, or the father who buried multiple family members while knowing his only job was to protect and provide for those same family members.
Differences Then and Now
The suffering the group endured seems unimaginable in today’s era, yet they not only suffered, but they also celebrated! These people who had almost nothing found reasons to come together and give thanks for everything! How different is that from today where so many of us have everything and find it so difficult to give thanks for anything.
Maybe that is exactly the difference though. The pilgrims came to America with almost nothing but hopes and dreams. They came to build a better life for their offspring, for children and grandchildren. They were willing to risk everything to do so. They may not have had any idea how difficult life would be here, but they came and stayed because they wanted their children to grow in their faith. They wanted them to grow in prudence and wisdom and, yes, sacrifice.
How different is that from how many parent today? Today, we talk about resilience in children but don’t model resilience. Instead parents model selfishness by walking out on Marriages leaving children to sacrifice in ways that harm rather than grow. We seek pleasure and glory rather than strength and fortitude. We lecture about bullying but applaud bullying in divorce and broken relationships. We give them things when what they really need is time. We shelter children from work but expose them to porn. We say we would do anything for our children but send them off to schools that teach them our values and our word mean nothing!
We place value on material things over human life. The early pilgrims knew the value of life. In a way we could not possibly fathom, the early American settlers must have known what a gift it was to just be alive! The pit in their stomaches that comes from intense loss and hardship could only have been quenched by knowing each sunrise is a gift, by knowing that they must work together for tomorrow while living grateful for today, and by loving and forgiving each other in each moment.
Control’s Interference with Thankfulness
Today, we have control over many things. We control the degree of heat in our homes. We control what food we place in our cupboards. We control how fast we drive to work. We live in a time and part of the world where we have more control than ever in history, yet our world is spinning out of control.
The tighter we hold onto to control, the more things we demand control of. We are not satisfied with living in a warm home, having healthy food, and being able to work. We want to control what kind of homes are built around us, health issues that come from eating foods we should not, and insurance benefits, salary, and perks that come with jobs we devote little loyalty too.
Our quest for control does not end there either! We demand control of life and death, not only for ourselves but in the lives of others as well. Today, we take life through abortion, euthanasia, and suicide and wonder why we have an increase in depression and anxiety. We believe life is in our hands and fail to give thanks for the gift that is being alive!
Nothing brings home the fact that life is a gift beyond our control more than when a loved one is taken from us too soon. The early settlers and their Native American counterparts were far wiser than modern man when it comes to this. It is easy to dismiss the intensity of their loss or mistake their submission to God’s Will as a weakness. The reasons mentioned above combined with the passage of time makes such intense suffering and total faith distant and difficult to relate to, but both the suffering and the faith were intense nonetheless. It is precisely this mix that allowed the pilgrims to celebrate that first Thanksgiving and perhaps what we need to celebrate thankfulness more completely as well.