Thanksgiving, Olde and New

Thanksgiving Day and the first day of Hanukkah fall on the same day this year. Huzzah! So, I guess we’re having the First Thanksgivukkah, right?  Well, Hanukkah goes on for eight days, so, I’m going to strike while the iron is hot and post about Thanksgiving today. I’ll write about Hanukkah soon.

When I was in grade school, back in the age of black-and-white television and rotary dial telephones, we were taught that the First Thanksgiving was Pilgrims and Indians together thanking God, the Great Spirit, for their prosperity and His blessings.

Perish the thought! Acknowledgement of religion in a school…. someone get the smelling salts, I feel faint.

It wasn’t a private religious school. No, it was the Laboratory School for the College of Education at the University of Florida, this was P. K. Young. It was a school were new methods of instruction and new curricula were developed and tested. Teachers for the public schools trained there as well. Undoubtedly, P. K. Young, its instructors and its curricula were on the leading Progressive edge of Progressiveness in Progressive Education. And even they acknowledged the role of Divine Providence in United States history.

Today, I’m told, public school students are taught that the Pilgrims gave thanks to the Indians for teaching them how to survive in the New Worlde and saving them from starvation. I don’t doubt that there was a lot of this going on as well, but we shouldn’t lose sight of our national heritage.  As a talented filmmaker or a best-selling author does when re-imagining an existing entertainment property, let’s look back at the origins of Thanksgiving.  If we choose to change our traditions, let’s do so informed of what their origins were and what their purpose was.  If we chose to change our tradition, let’s return to that original purpose and bring it into our future.

The Pilgrims were Puritan separatists, Christians who had fled persecution of the Church of England, because they understood God differently than the King of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Throughout the Pilgrims’ writings are references to God and Christ. We ought not deny this.

Some say, Rabbis among them, that the First Thanksgiving had its origin in the Jewish festival of Sukkot [more about that at Sukkot next year]. The Pilgrims may have waited for the celebration until all the harvest was in; or the Hebrew calendar my have just had Sukkot really, really late that year.

Anyway, the point is that Thanksgiving Day had a religious tone in its origin. But it had a practical tone as well.

The Pilgrims were a very devout and religious people but they were practical as well. They could not finance, with their own wealth, the Mayflower’s voyage to the new world. Thus they undertook a contract with one of the English joint stock companies that was financing colonies in Virginia.  In the contract they stated that they would share their property in common. They reaffirmed this in a covenant with God and compact with each other that they made on their voyage.

Bad weather and rough seas (or Divine Providence, or both) blew them off course and they landed in New England instead of Virginia.  It was winter when they arrived and the weather was too harsh for them to attempt to move south to their proper location. So they founded Plymouth Plantation in New England. Many continued to live in the Mayflower until spring.  As many as half of the Pilgrims died before that first spring.

For those who survived the winter of their arrival, having all things in common worked well enough. The record shows the Indians did indeed mentor the Pilgrims in methods of farming, hunting, fishing and making clothes that worked in their lands. William Bradford recorded that they enjoyed a measure of prosperity and that each family received its share from the farms and the hunting and the fishing.

When another ship arrived with people who weren’t part of the covenant, these new settlers wanted to live with the Pilgrims and eat with them, but not work as hard as the Pilgrims. Bradford recorded that hale and hearty young men were loath to work for the feeding and betterment of other men’s wives and children.

It’s basic human nature. We want to own what we make.

And if we don’t see our share increase in proportion to our hard work, we say, why not slack off a bit? Well, I’ll tell you why. Fish don’t catch themselves. Moose, deer and turkey don’t hunt themselves. And crops don’t grow an abundant harvest unless they’re planted, weeded, fertilized, watered and tended. Less produce and meat, to be shared in common among the same or more people means, well, if not starvation, then surely famine.

So, as the common share shrank, Bradford and the other leaders sought God in prayer and searched the Scriptures for an answer. And they found in the writings of St. Paul a verse that said, ‘If a man will not work, let him not eat.’ This doesn’t mean we’re to leave the old and the lame out on the ice flow, apart from the tribe, to die of cold or hunger, as was the custom of Native Americans of Alaska and Northern Canada.  St. Paul didn’t write, ‘If a man cannot work…,’ He wrote, ‘If a man will not work….” The use of the word will implied choice and ability. To Bradford it must have meant that if an able-bodied man with intelligence and strength chose to be lazy, the community was under no obligation to provide for him.

Seeing this, Bradford and Pilgrims amended their covenant with God, and changed their laws to assign plots of land to families and individuals. Each kept the product of his or her farming, fishing, hunting, weaving, etc., to trade with the others. This led to hard work, creativity, industriousness and such prosperity the Pilgrims could indeed gather with the Indians to thank God, the Great Spirit.

Soon, they paid off their contract with that English joint stock company and Good News from New England swept the British Isles and more settlers arrived. And the Thanksgiving custom as Proclaimed by George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and other Presidents, would eventually become thanking God for opportunity, for civil and religious liberty, for victory at great cost and for prosperity.

So, before we rush into the Christmas shopping season, let’s recognize what we have, where it came from, and give credit where credit is due.  Let’s remember as Thomas Jefferson wrote, and John F. Kennedy said, our rights come from God.  Our abilities, our talents and our purpose come from God.  Let’s seek out that purpose, so that we can use our abilities to serve God by serving our fellow-man and fellow-woman and be rewarded according to the quality and skill of our work.

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The opinions expressed in my writings are my own, unless otherwise cited or attributed, and not necessarily those of my employers.

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