If Mayflower passenger Edward Winslow’s letter of December 1621 is right, this Thanksgiving marks the 400th anniversary of the first bread breaking and giving of thanks, attended by over 100, a respite from their modern madness. Much can be said, but that respite is key.
At Thanksgiving, prior to and after the holiday became official, Americans gathered to celebrate blessings, families, the New World, surviving another year, shared values, and our oneness.
At the first gathering, emphasis was heavy on gratitude since 45 of the 102 Mayflower passengers died in the initial 1620 to 1621 period, a far higher percentage than we have lost to COVID in the 2020 to 2021 period (one in 500). Living was worth celebrating. Gratitude was about the harvest – and being alive.
Gratitude is also attached to companionship, camaraderie, not just peace but common purpose – a shared interest in living and giving – the newfound Colonist-Native American friendships.
Beyond thanks for life, surviving, and friendship, a period of three days marked that first harvest. Games were played, life’s fragile nature acknowledged, how much in times of need – humans rely on other humans, all differences notwithstanding. Up against it, we need each other.
For reference, 78 percent of women who arrived on the Mayflower perished the first year. By all accounts, the daring pilgrims and accommodating tribesmen of the “Pokanoket Wampanoag” group, led by a “Massasoit,” were dependent on shared grounds for planting. Trust went with bread.
Interestingly, the written record – important enough that William Bradford recounted the feast 20 years later – indicates Native attendees outnumbered new arrivals two-to-one, up to 90 Natives.
Many lessons lie in this fleeting bit of history, not the least that a fleeting bit of history can be incalculably important. Giving thanks lifts us, binds us by gratitude. Sharing life’s bounty is about the memorable joy of giving, more than the immediate value of what is received.
Mutual dependence is sometimes – we know from day-to-day life, military, and civilian combat, the enduring struggle to keep our balance – the very key to survival.
Somewhere before those magical days in 1621, gingerly commemorated over turkey, one brave hand was extended, another brave hand took it. A brave voice was lifted, brave response given. Hand and voice were trusted. Imagine how, if we could replicate that, things might change.
How often do we place ourselves in the shoes – or moccasins – of another? Not often enough. Today, superficial trumps real, complaint and victimhood supersede gratitude and responsibility; distrust is the social default, not the daring required to extend a hand and take it.
Lessons of that first Thanksgiving are many. Perhaps the last is this. Imagine – in a moment when half of all those you know have died, when strangers arrive at your door and you at theirs, when uncertainty abounds, risk attaches to everything, worry is dispelled by prayer, and new friends rare, you stumble on the chance to stop, give thanks, resolve that life is good.
That is what all those – of such different pasts – did that wondrous day. They considered, for that moment in time, the respite worth taking. From their modern madness, they stepped away. From frenzy’s claws, they took a pause, celebrated. If they could take that break 400 years ago, we can now – equal parts hope, confidence, and resolve. Respite is key. Happy Thanksgiving!