Thanksgiving celebrations at the completion of harvest are common among many religions and cultures. The Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot (The Feast of Tabernacles) is one example. A successful harvest was a life-and-death matter in times when ruin was only one bad harvest away.
In North America Thanskgiving is rooted in English traditions dating from the Protestant Reformation. In 1536 there were 92 religious observances. Attendance at church was required, and work prohibited. Reforms consolidated festivals into days of fasting and days of thanksgiving.
Harvest festivals and days of thanksgiving were brought to New England with the European immigration. Eventually this was consolidated into one festival, even though the harvest in New England occurs well before the late-November date on which the modern Thanksgiving holiday is celebrated.
Thanksgiving in the U.S. is often traced to a 1621 celebration at Plymouth in present-day Massachusetts. The 1621 Plymouth feast and thanksgiving was likely prompted by a good harvest. Puritan immigrants, and the Pilgrims (a sect of Puritans fleeing England, who never called themselves Pilgrims) in the 1620s and 1630s brought the tradition of Days of Fasting and Days of Thanksgiving with them to New England. The Puritans wanted to overthrow the English government (and did in 1649). The Pilgrims were those who left England to take their chances in the wilds of the so-called “New” World. Although they have been sanitized by history, they were fugitives. The Mayflower was the first of hundreds of ships.
The Wampanoag people were part of a larger group of Agonkian-speaking peoples who were critical to the survival of the Pilgrims. The Wampanoag were expert hunters, fishers and farmers who had lived in the part of North America now called Massachusetts for thousands of years. Their religion taught them to show hospitality to strangers and to care for those who were helpless or hungry. The first Thanksgiving was a Native American feast of hospitality to immigrants.
The Pilgrims wished to build a plantation, and so they invited the Wampanoag to negotiate a treaty. This was a delicate situation because the Wampanoag were powerful. They would have to be treated gently until more ships arrived and the balance of power shifted. The Wampanoag brought the majority of the food.
Sadly, within a decade and a half, the Puritans were slaughtering the Indians, and selling some into slavery. Many Native Americans struggle with the romantic picture of Thanskgiving today, and how it sometimes portrays the Europeans serving the Wampanoag rather than vice versa.
Nothing we do can change the course of events in the 17th century. Today Thanksgiving tends to be a time to simply give thanks for all we have. Perhaps, though, we can take a moment to give thanks for the First Nations that lived on this land for countless generations before Europeans arrived, and who shared generously with the earliest immigrants from England. We can thank them for thousands of years of cultivation of grass that led to corn, the most plentiful grain on earth today. We can give thanks for turkeys, native to North American forests. We can pray and give thanks for family, home and all that we have, as President of the United States, George Washington proclaimed in 1789, “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God.”
And maybe, just maybe, we can imagine a kinder, gentler way to relate to pilgrims who seek refuge in our land today.