Jeff Wallace: A Thanksgiving to remember
That first Thanksgiving Feast of 1621 was attended by pale, white British pilgrims and dark, tan-skinned Native Americans. The idea for a Thanksgiving feast was likely inspired by the Harvest Festival prescribed in Leviticus 23:9-14, the annual celebration among Jews known as Sukkot or Feast of Tabernacles. The celebration was also inspired by Christian celebrations of Eucharist. Eucharist is the Greek word for thanksgiving. In Christian circles, Holy Eucharist is also known as our “Great Thanksgiving.”
That first Thanksgiving feast at Plymouth, Massachusetts, brought to the table Wampanoag Indians and Mayflower pilgrims because peoples of vastly different cultures found common ground in their mutual reasons to be passionately thankful! Half of the 100 pilgrims who disembarked the Mayflower died during their first winter as the severe cold, insufficient shelters and food supplies led to starvation and sickness. Ninety percent of the Wampanoag tribe had perished due to their lack of immunity to the diseases carried by European explorers and the rodents from their ships. Those colonists and Native Americans who survived to plow a field, plant a crop, and then harvest it would revel in celebration for three full days of feasting, singing, fun, and games for all ages, with spirited prayers and praises in worship. It was nothing like the noonday meals and afternoon naps that Thanksgiving has become for many of us today. They had successfully launched more than a mere expedition! They had launched a new life together.
Anyone who has survived a life-threatening illness, accident, or natural disaster will know the kind of celebration that comes with a successful battle against the odds. Survivors also know how differences and divisions fade when, in a struggle, people turn to one another for support and to their higher power for divine help and healing. The Indians and pilgrims coping with mutual life-threatening conditions, forged friendships and began an unlikely launching of a colony with a Mayflower Compact that would become a multi-cultural nation with the Constitution of the United States of America.
Post script 1863: Two years prior to the ending of the Civil War, at the urging of a magazine editor by the name of Sarah Hale, President Abraham Lincoln reached back into our nation’s history to inspire Americans with the hope of differences and divisions being overcome by mutual suffering, survival, support, and divine healing and help. President Lincoln instituted Thanksgiving as a national holiday to be celebrated every year on the fourth Thursday of November.
Post script 2016: Our nation is torn apart again over cultural, political, and racial differences. May our story be another inspiring example of mutual suffering, survival, support, and divine healing and help. May God also help us to find common ground in our abundant reasons to be thankful.
This story had its beginning on March 16, 1621, when a tall Native American man walked into Plymouth Colony and greeted his white neighbors with a friendly “Welcome, Englishmen!” A fisherman in Maine had taught him to speak English. His name was Samoset. He offered the pilgrims, on behalf of his chief, a choice between a sharp arrow and a blunted arrow, a choice between war and peace. The pilgrims chose well! They chose peace and decided to work side by side to survive and succeed together.
Americans today represent many tribes and colonies and each of us has this same choice of waging war or waging peace, of working against each other or working together. This is true for our nation as well as for our hometowns, households, and churches. I hope and pray that future generations will be able to celebrate the choices we make for the sake of this world and for the sake of our Lord and His peaceable kingdom.
On a very sad note, this multi-cultural Plymouth community was short-lived. Thirty-five new settlers arrived from England on a ship called Fortune. This was followed by more ships and a thousand more settlers who settled just north of Plymouth and established the Massachusetts Bay Colony. They walled out the Native Americans and took over their sacred land. These choices led to war and the decimation of our Native American neighbors with whom we had celebrated our first Thanksgiving Feast.
Let us take note today of those words of George Santayana, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Fr. Jeff Wallace is rector of Calvary Episcopal Church, Americus.