“Happy Turkey Day!”
The first time I heard it, I was somewhat amused. Unfortunately, the American “Thanksgiving” has in reality become mostly that. It is a day to eat turkey, stuff yourself with mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie, perhaps have a couple of brews and watch football. And not much else.
It isn’t that there is really anything wrong with feasting and enjoying yourself. Certainly, overdoing any of these things to your detriment is a problem and cause worse problems, but that isn’t the point.
The point is that these things are not supposed to be what the day is about.
The US Day of Thanksgiving is traced to the colony of Pilgrims founded at Plymouth Rock. They were a particularly religious bunch, and they were caught between being persecuted by the English and their children losing their cultural heritage to the more liberal Dutch standards. The Puritan Separatists left Plymouth, Devon in England in 1620. They braved a hazardous journey to go to the New Land. Over halfway to America, winds and storms caused a main beam to crack. Someone onboard had a “great iron screw” which was used to hold it together for the remainder of the voyage. Only 2 died during the journey, and one was born, who was named Oceanus.
However, their landing in America was not the end of their trials. They arrived farther north than intended, and it was already November. The settlers ended up wintering aboard the Mayflower until the following March. Many of them caught scurvy, and 47% of them died that winter.
However, not all was bad. They were fortunate enough to find maize buried in (apparent) burial mounds. They also discovered some huts, but the natives had seemingly fled. The settlers borrowed supplies with the intent to repay later when they met (which did happen, BTW, but that’s another story).
"And it is to be noted as a special providence of God, and a great mercy to this poor people, that they thus got seed to plant corn the next year, or they might have starved; for they had none, nor any likelihood of getting any, till too late for the planting season."
~ Pilgrim (Plymouth Colony). (n.d.). Wikipedia. Retrieved 24 November 2010 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pilgrim_(Plymouth_Colony).
The settlers found no opposition in settling there. The village was abandoned. Apparently, the Patuxet tribe had caught smallpox from European traders. They had no resistance, and the plague came upon them so suddenly that the Pilgrims found huts with unburied skeletons within.
The Pilgrims happened upon (or, was it divine providence?) a native Patuxet named Squanto who learned English after being taken as a slave to Europe. He was captured with the intent of being sold to Spaniards for £20 when some friars learned of it and bought him and his companions. They introduced him to their Christian beliefs, and he eventually convinced the friars to allow him to return to his native land. He made his way to London and worked there for a few years under a shipbuilder, John Slany, who apparently taught him English. Squanto eventually returned to New England in 1618 and then home in 1619. It was then that he learned most of his tribe had been wiped out by a plague.
After such a hard winter, the Pilgrims needed help. Rather than become bitter over his circumstances, Squanto was there to provide them assistance in how to fertilize corn and fish.
The tradition of a “harvest festival” isn’t something new. Some have remarked that it may even have been a passing nod to the OT Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot). Others have written of this possible connection, but I chose to quote this from Rabbi Elias Lieberman’s article “Thanksgiving: A Harvest Festival with Roots in Sukkot”:
I have the great good fortune to live on Cape Cod, just a short drive from Plimoth Plantation. It was there, in the Plimoth settlement, that history records the first "Thanksgiving."
The intervening centuries have made it difficult to sort fact from Hallmark-fiction, but this much we do know, from one contemporaneous account from 1621: There were three days of feasting, in the company of Native Americans. …
While we cannot be certain about what motivated those Pilgrim settlers to initiate a feast of thanksgiving, it is likely that they consciously drew on a model well-known to them from the Bible they cherished. Seeing themselves as new Israelites in a new "promised land," the Pilgrims surely found inspiration in the sixteenth chapter of the Book of Leviticus in which God commands the ancient Israelites to observe the Feast of Booths–in Hebrew "to rejoice before Adonai your God" at the time of the fall harvest [16:11].
In any event, after that first year, the Pilgrims had many reasons to give thanks. When you look at all of the “coincidences” that occurred, especially being befriended by an English-speaking native, it’s not hard to see a small amount of supernatural favor for what the Pilgrims.
It is not because the Pilgrims or any of the other newcomers from Europe were more righteous than anyone else. It is a certainty that none of them were perfect. In spite of that, Squanto assisted the Pilgrims. Perhaps it is because in his travels he began to understand that the God of the Bible is a God of grace, and so He gives mercy to whomever He will. I absolutely do not believe that these events could have taken place until the Bible was translated into languages that even the common people could understand. In seeking religious freedom, the Bible and its message was being spread even across a great ocean.
And, of course, it is because of America that more Bibles have been printed than would have ever been possible at the time of the Pilgrims. The invention of the Internet allows people even in very repressive regimes to learn more about God’s grace and mercy.
Just as there are those who reject the idea of a connection between ancient Israel and modern day Europe, many today also reject and don’t teach the religious side of the early European settlers. Instead, they would rather rewrite history with secular views on economics driving all of the new immigrants.
The trouble is, in a world where Thanksgiving just becomes “Turkey Day”, it is far too easy to swallow down such poison with a helping of mashed potatoes and swig of brew.