As I’ve watched all of my Facebook friends offer up words of Thanksgiving all November long, it has definitely been heartwarming to see so much gratitude. However, hearkening back to the feast that was deemed “the first Thanksgiving,” I find it interesting that no one has been thankful for the one thing that inspired that first Thanksgiving. Indeed, I hadn’t even thought about it until my own son wrote that he was thankful for it. And that is food.
We are a people who enjoy convenience and variety when it comes to our food. Even the poorest of us in this country have access to it, some for “free.” Regardless of the technological advancements that have made this abundance possible (and even harmful, I would argue in a different forum), we are a nation of plenty. We cannot begin to fathom the fear of a crop-less winter or the devastation of a drought. Our food is packaged, processed, dyed and waxed to a shine before it is presented to us in neatly arranged rows and butcher blocks. Most of us do not know or care how that food came to be there. We simply fill our carts and pay the bill, patting ourselves on the back for any savings garnered by the time spent carefully cutting coupons.
But are we truly thankful for it?
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking modern convenience. I have no desire to be an early-17th century pilgrim…or a late-17th century one for that matter. My purpose in this post is simply to point out that something as basic as sustenance should be appreciated, really appreciated, and never taken for granted. Sure, be thankful for your car, your families, your days off, your favorite football team’s win, your day to sleep-in, your friends, your spa time, your pets, your job, your Black Friday deals, your gym buddies, your favorite TV show and the weather cooperating with your plans. I would never want to discourage gratitude in any form. But be thankful for your food. You could live without all of that other stuff, but without your food, you’d be dead.
So, onto the history lesson.
As evident by the recent Jaywalking hall of shame on the Tonight Show, most Americans know next to nothing about the first Thanksgiving. So, I thought I would take this opportunity to talk about that first gathering and what was ultimately a celebration of food. The pilgrims of 1620 who arrived in Plymouth on the Mayflower did so at the onset of winter. There were 101 men, women and children and more than half of them died before the spring. If not for the Wampanoag tribe (or rather an adopted member of the Wampanoag tribe named Squanto – really cool guy, should definitely check out his story), the pilgrims likely would have died that year or been forced to return to England.
Now, to dispel the notion that the pilgrims were dumb English settlers who knew nothing about anything but religion, let me mention that the pilgrims were farmers. They had been farmers in England until they were pushed into exile by religious persecution, forcing them to flee to the city of Leiden in Holland. Being that they were farmers living in a city, life in Leiden was difficult and when the opportunity to settle in the “New World” arose, they went. The fact that they had a hard time making things grow in Massachusetts shows the differences between the two environments. But Squanto taught them when and how to plant, how to use fish as fertilizer and then taught them how to cook the maize.
During the harvest of 1621 pilgrim men went hunting for game to join the yields from their fields. The Wampanoag assisted the pilgrims in their hunts and joined the feast, which lasted for three full days. Together, they ate, played games and sports, danced and sang songs, and struck an accord of peace that lasted for fifty years.
The first “recorded” Thanksgiving, however, took place two years later. The pilgrims had suffered a two-year drought that ended in 1623. The rains that fell helped their crops flourish, and that November they feasted and gave thanks to God for bringing the rain to feed their crops, which then fed their malnourished bodies. The feast continued to be celebrated every November and it became a national holiday in 1863 by Abraham Lincoln.
I encourage all to be truly thankful that, in spite of whatever weather and soil conditions, whatever water shortages or surpluses, whatever fungal nuisances or pesky plant worms may have influenced our farms and fields this year, there is still plenty to adorn our holiday tables this week.