Of all our national holidays, Thanksgiving is the only one that does not celebrate a particular event or a particular person or persons. Someone once said it was our only victimless national holiday, if you could overlook several million turkeys.
Not that Thanksgiving is without problems. Our spiritual forebears thought they had discovered America, or at least a new part of it. They believed — as many of their descendants continued to believe for too long — that a country is “discovered” when the first white European male sets foot on it. Nonetheless, after we seriously remember what the European settlers did to the native populations, the story of the origins of Thanksgiving Day is a simple and stirring one.
Persecuted in England for their religion and unhappy in Holland, the Pilgrims walked up the gangplank of the Mayflower and sailed to a place they called Plymouth, near Cape Cod. Ten years after the landing, William Bradford, their elected governor, described how they felt at first: “They had no friends to welcome them nor inns to entertain or refresh their weatherbeaten bodies; no houses or much less towns to repair to, to seek for succour .... Savage barbarians, when they met with them, were readier to fill their sides with arrows than otherwise.”
Soon it was winter, a winter filled with “cruel and fierce storms.” Within seven months of their arrival, half the passengers of the Mayflower were dead. There was not one home where at least one person had not died. Fortunately, in the spring the Indians taught them how to plant maize (corn) and fertilize it with fish. When the harvest was in, the story goes, the Pilgrims invited the natives to their feast of thanksgiving, sharing the corn, beans, squash, and pumpkins the Indians had taught them how to grow, and the wild turkey the Indians had taught them how to hunt.
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They gave thanks to God for the new land, for their new life, and for the bounties God had given them. Legends have it that in later years, the colonists would begin their annual thanksgiving feast by placing 5 kernels of corn on each plate in remembrance of that terrible winter when food reserves dipped to these pitiful few kernels for each remaining Pilgrim.
Now, we Americans have this day that is not a celebration of football, of a finger-nail biting basketball game the night before, or the remembrance of a terrible war, or the birth or death of noteworthy persons, but a day that is set aside to encourage a particular behavior — the behavior of giving thanks, of remembering, of not forgetting.
Giving thanks has a peculiar attribute: humility. In offering thanks, one has to acknowledge that the self is not the source of all the good in one’s life, that bounty — what one has of it — comes from the land, the labor of others, the support and mentoring one has received in life, as much as from the self’s own efforts.
True thanksgiving begins with gratitude to others and, if religious, to one’s God. Gratitude and grace have the same root word. They tell us that we don’t live as autonomous, self-resourcing, self-reliant individuals but that every life is sustained by the tender mercies of friends and the combined efforts of a community.
At a time when so many are insisting that we close the “golden door” beside which Lady Liberty stands with her torch of freedom, this quintessential American holiday requires that we remember how this nation was founded and built by refugees, many fleeing for their lives, many facing religious persecution.
Those in this country who want to discriminate against citizens or refugees based on religion, who want to initiate surveillance in and upon mosques, who want all Middle Eastern refugees or American Muslims to be registered and carry identity papers are demagogues and should have no place in the America of Lady Liberty.
Gratitude is what defines our humanity. Only grace, gratitude and thanksgiving can heal the broken heart, can loosen the stiff-necked stubbornness that refuses to see kinfolk in the stranger, can open the heart to the refugee. Only thanksgiving can move our beloved nation onward toward the greatness to which we have always aspired.
The Rev. Nancy J. Kemper is pastor of New Union Christian Church in Woodford County.