Thanksgiving has come to mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. But what does it mean to you? There’s turkey and mashed potatoes, squash and pumpkin pie, right? You go over to Grandma’s house and eat until you can’t possibly manage another bite… Then, after a stroll around the neighborhood, it’s time to dive into the stuffing sandwiches and a piece of Grandma’s apple pie you didn’t have room for two hours ago... There’s football games to cheer over, fantastic parades, and maybe a visit with a few folks you may not see very often. Yep, that’s what Thanksgiving’s all about, right? Just like the Pilgrims did it. They wore silly hats, belts with big buckles, and carried ridiculously inaccurate blunderbusses to hunt the turkey with. Then they sat down with the Indians around a big table and shared an enormous feast. Life could not be better and the new world was a wonderful place. Yep…
In truth, the Pilgrims had a pretty rough show. With the prospect of freedom and land ownership dangling like a carrot from the Mayflower masthead, they spent more than 2 months on treacherous seas to get to the ‘wrong’ place. They arrived (near Cape Cod) just in time to face a brutally harsh winter, and ended up staying on the ship because that was the best shelter they had. Not only were they freezing their bums off, they were suffering malnutrition (scurvy) and a host of other lovely illnesses. Half of them survived to see the Spring thaw! Would you go on a road trip if you knew half of your party would never make it? Hey, we’re headed to Cabo, it’s going to be great! Wanna go?
With supplies running out, the Pilgrims moved ashore to make a go of it there. A shocking twist saved them from joining the other half of their crew, they were met by a native who spoke… English! This amazing individual introduced them to other natives who taught them how to live off the new land, how to farm, how to catch fish, how to avoid dying, etc… In fact, they were such good teachers, by the end of that season, the Pilgrims were blessed with a good crop of corn and stores to survive the next brutal winter. To show their gratitude, November, 1621, the colonists invited the natives (the Wampanoag tribe) to a feast. It is written that these (then called) Indians brought 5 deer to contribute to this gathering, to go with the corn, fish, and whatever else they could harvest from the area. There was probably no turkey, definitely no potatoes (mashed or otherwise), and (since they had no ovens or sugar) no pie! No pie!
Even without pie, the feast went on for 3 days! Three… days… That’s a heckuva celebration! Think for a moment. C’mon… Think! These people had no football or video games, no Holiday movies to watch, no running water, no wash machines, no PC’s, no cell phones, no electric anything, and no cars to drive back to their thermostatically temperature-controlled homes in! You probably have access to all (or most) of those things, right? Yet, these people held a 3 day party around camp fires under the flag of friendship. Compare that to 3 hours at your favorite relative’s where you start glazing over in a recliner to the TV soon after dinner. Remove just one of your common traditions and how does it make you feel? Is something missing?
The records show no mention of the words ‘thanks giving’ at this feast, but you can bet your last piece of pie that thanks were indeed given! Put yourself in their shoes for just a moment... Mighty uncomfortable aren't they? You’ve decided to start a new life and it’s been nothing but setbacks to the point where survival is doubtful for you and everyone around you. Imagine how thankful you'd be to have been met by someone in a strange place who showed you compassion, spoke your language, and basically saved your butt! Shoes feeling a little better now? Even more fantastic, this working relationship between Immigrants and Natives was successfully maintained for the next 50 years. Talk about overcoming cultural differences! It sends a powerful message through the dusty years of history, especially if you look at what’s been happening since then.
Our First President, good ole George Washington, was the first to declare an actual Thanksgiving Holiday. It was set aside as a day of gratitude for the end of America’s War for Independence! Gaining freedom from England was huge, and if you were still around after that bloody mess, you’d be thankful too! Like a lot of trends we associate with our First President (such as... American freedom anyone?), this notion of giving thanks was an appropriate one to embark upon. Because there are always things to be thankful for.
Like, for example, the reason you have this day of thanks every year; the day a pin was stuck in the calendar designating the 4th Thursday in November as the official Thanksgiving Day! We can thank another great President for this, Abe Lincoln. Go ahead say it, Thank You, Abe! Abe didn’t actually go along with this idea for about 30 years, finally giving in to Sarah Joseph Hale’s relentless campaign letters (a major lobby effort) written to just about every politician in office. Incidentally, Sarah’s (prolific) writings* also included recipes for modern traditions such as pumpkin pie… Unlike Washington’s Thanks-Giving atmosphere of peace, Lincoln made this designation when the Civil War was at its absolute worst, calling for relief to the strife suffered by those who had lost loved ones. Thanksgiving means a whole lot more than you probably realized?
My first Thanksgiving in CA was spent in San Francisco. We had little money and had just rented a quaint two bedroom Victorian apartment in the lower Haight (for $725 / month!). We had no furniture so we sat in boxes stuffed with our sleeping bags. We had no phone and no TV. There was no gourmet food or fine wine. We ate turkey cold cuts and canned corn off an old crate we used as a table. We had cheap beer, and a boom-box, and we thought it was all just... great! We were thankful for what we had: a place to stay, and food to eat! Most of all, we had each other’s company and shared our thoughts on what we were grateful for. Since then, I’ve upgraded accommodations a bit, and have a lot more places to sit and put my growing collection of stuff. I’m grateful for all the people and things that I’ve encountered on my way to sitting at this desk… right now.
There’s a core value that supersedes any fancy dinner gathering. If you look around you, at the pictures on your desk, or on the walls of your home. If you look out your window, at the children playing in the yard, at the neighbor that collects your mail when you’re away, at the trees holding onto the last of their leaves, at the car in your driveway. If you look at the very hands that are giving you access to the great hodgepodge of information we take for granted in our modern age, you’ll find a whole lot of things to be thankful for.
Most of us haven’t had to fight a war for freedom or acclimate to a new environment where we have to learn to live off the land for basic survival. Myself, I’ve enjoyed a very modest and wonderful life so far. Sure, it’s been up and down, and I’m thankful for every good thing that comes my way. And when you think about it, most things are good. If there were more bad things than good, you probably wouldn’t be here right now to think about it?
However you celebrate this harvest, take a moment to reflect on those good things around you. It’s good for the soul! It’s become a tradition around the tables I’ve been invited to, that we join hands and share what we’re thankful for before tucking in to the bounty of the earth. It’s personal and intimate, outspoken and liberating, to speak aloud what your innermost heart knows to be true. Thank You.
* Sarah Joseph Hale also wrote 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' Just for the kids...