The photo above is part of a larger poster from the Pilgrim Hall Museum. It represents about half of the survivors of the Mayflower that were at the second Thanksgiving.
We have once more come to the time of Thanksgiving in America. Thanksgiving is a unique holiday because of its origins in American history. It is the quintessential “American” holiday.
However, it is no stretch to say that Thanksgiving in America is not well recognized or observed in the land of its origin. It is, in fact, largely ignored by most of the media (with the exception of football on TV) and certainly by businesses throughout the nation.
If you doubt this, simply visit any shopping mall or large outlets such as WalMart in the weeks between Halloween and Thanksgiving. Even online businesses engage in virtual silence concerning Thanksgiving.
This is in some ways understandable. Most would see that in a strictly economic sense, both Halloween and Christmas are far more profitable than Thanksgiving.
However, this attitude concerning the holiday reflects a profound error among Americans. The error of failing to understand that great blessing requires great gratitude from those greatly blessed.
The Astounding Abundance of America Demands Thankfulness
It is obvious to almost everyone that Americans enjoy a level of material abundance unmatched and unprecedented in history. Obvious to everyone but many who actually live in America.
The reasons why many Americans are not so grateful are too many to articulate here. However, one of the very important ones is historical amnesia within the populace.
Historical amnesia afflicts each generation to some extent. Experience can only be lived by those existing in a particular time.
The hardships of previous times should inform us to live with abundant gratitude for present abundance. Yet, many learn to quickly criticize conditions which would be the envy of people from a harsher past.
Moreover, many in my native nation do not recognize their current abundance in relation to much of the rest of the world. For example, the average family living in official poverty in America possess multiple vehicles, televisions, computers and cell phones.
Additionally, the diet of such a family is high enough in calories to make obesity a serious problem among the poor in America. Such are the differences between ‘First-world’ and ‘Third-world’ problems.
A look at the origin and motivations for the early Thanksgiving celebrations may help alleviate this harmful historical amnesia. With God’s aid, perhaps it can help foster a little more gratitude among us as well.
Why the Second Thanksgiving?
Most are vaguely familiar with the characters involved in the first unofficial Thanksgiving. The actual history of events at the Massachusetts Bay Colony is less well-known.
The first Thanksgiving was a profound event and signaled the beginning of a remarkable 40-year peace between the Pilgrims and Massasoit tribe. However, the story of the second Thanksgiving celebration is perchance more instructive on what Thanksgiving should mean.
The second celebration came a couple of years after the severe hardship of the 1621-22 winter made worse by the unexpected arrival of more colonists from England. During a portion of that winter, the colony was reduced to a daily ration of 5 kernels of corn apiece!
Authors Peter Marshall and David Manuel characterize that time writing,
(Five kernels of corn-it is almost inconceivable how life could be supported on this.) But as always, they had a choice: either to give in to bitterness and despair or to go deeper in Christ. They chose Christ. And in contrast to what happened at Jamestown, not one of them died of starvation.
They survived the next spring due to help also unexpectedly arriving from England via another ship with extra supplies. However, the next planting season of 1623 proved perilous.
A lengthy drought of 12 weeks threatened all of their crops with destruction. It was so long that,
…not even the oldest Indians could remember anything like it.
However, a remarkable fact was recorded by Edward Winslow, one of the Pilgrim leaders of the colony. It was their response to the draught and failing crop.
Now were our hopes overthrown, and we discouraged, our joy turned into mourning …because God, which hitherto had been our only shield and supporter, now seemed in His anger to arm Himself against us. …These and like considerations moved not only every good man privately to enter into examination with his own estate between God and his conscience, and so to humiliation before Him, but also to humble ourselves together before the Lord by fasting and prayer. To that end, a day was appointed by public authority, and set apart from all other employments.
The day was set aside and the fasting and prayer began. Winslow records that after eight or nine hours of this going on, clouds began to gather and a rain began which would last the next 14 days straight!
The Celebration of Thanks to God
The Pilgrims repentant hearts brought Divine favor to their land. They were moved to once again throw all of their hopes on God, and they were rewarded.
The miraculous change resulted in a bumper crop of surplus corn, which they traded with the Indians. A second Thanksgiving Day was declared and made ready for.
It turned out to be an even bigger one than the first, with 120 Massasoit braves and the Chief with his wives attending. As with the first celebration, they brought much turkey and venison for the feast as well.
It also turned out to be a wedding ceremony for the Governor of the colony, with the Massasoit Chief as his guest of honor. According to one guest’s recollection, there were about 12 venison, plus a multitude of other meats, such as chicken and pork, and other delicacies served for the wedding alone!
Yet, before any part of the meal was consumed, a very special course was served first,
…on an empty plate in front of each person were five kernels of corn …lest anyone should forget.
The creators of what we call Thanksgiving Day lived in a harsh time, harsher than today’s Americans can know. The harshness of their past led to a great appreciation for the times of blessing.
Those Pilgrims also lived in a manner foreign to many today, a manner of daily dependence upon the Lord for everything. A manner which fostered a daily response of thankfulness to the Lord for His provision.
I pray that this Thanksgiving Day will spur us together to live a life of thankfulness to God who has provided so much more than we deserve. Moreover, I pray we will understand anew that His blessings are for the soul to prosper and grow closer to the Lord who loves us always.
Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. He sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from their destruction. Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man! And let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving, and tell of his deeds in songs of joy! Psalm 107:19-22 [ESV]
Sources: The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, Crossway Bibles, 2001
The Light and The Glory, Peter Marshall and David Manuel, Power Books, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1977
Featured and Top Image courtesy of Lee Wright’s Flickr page – Creative Commons License
Inset Image 1 courtesy of Omar Barcena’s Flickr page – Creative Commons License
Inset Image 2 courtesy of WELS net’s Flickr page – Creative Commons License
Inset Image 3 courtesy of CraneStation’s Flickr page – Creative Commons License
Inset Image 4 courtesy of Sharon Tate Soberon’s Flickr page – Creative Commons License
Inset Image 5 courtesy of Liralen Li’s Flickr page – Creative Commons License
All other sources linked or cited in the text
First published in TIL Journal