I used to think that the endless proclamations of gratitude and blessings around this time of year were a bit disingenuous. I was cynical at best, and not terribly convinced of the goodness of humanity at worst. Why today, and only today? But something changed – maybe it was my children’s arrival in the world. Maybe it was the recognition that cynicism is the worst of all things, creating a false sense of superiority that prevents us from really enjoying what’s in front of us. Maybe it was the return of an eternal sense of wonder when I took up gardening. I don’t know – but whatever it was, it was a gift.
Thanksgiving is a funny holiday – like many things, the stuff we celebrate and what actually happened are kind of different. A bunch of white people – including a couple ancestors of mine – arrived after a long boat ride to a place they had never been, getting here too late to plant anything to feed themselves. They assumed that the land was theirs for the taking without, you know, ever asking. Turns out that was the gift of a smallpox epidemic arriving in advance of said boat full of people, which left the land empty. A lot of the boat people starved. Also turns out that lack of food leads to tragedy – half of them died, and only 5 women were left at the end. You would think we could have held on to that lesson and made feeding the hungry our top priority going forward, but humanity has short memories.
In 1621, the first full year of the Mayflower settlers, there was a successful harvest in Plymouth, and the settlers did feast. Whether this was the first Thanksgiving or not is in question – other players include Virginia in 1619 and 1623, or when, in 1637 Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop did declare a day of Thanksgiving after colonists slaughtered 700 Pequot men, women and children. I’m not sure killing people is much to be thankful for, but that is what happened. While the colonists would have starved some more if not for their native neighbors, the goodwill between the parties didn’t last long, and it’s never really returned.
All that history aside though, I still think Thanksgiving is a thing to celebrate. First, it’s our one holiday here that revolves around family and food, rather than gift giving or candy. It’s literally a celebration of coming together with those different from you, which has a lot of good lessons for all of us about building bigger tables, and the discussion about who belongs at them. It’s a message to stop and take stock of what you have, not what you are missing, and who you have. It’s a reminder that some folks are lonely and have nowhere to go, and you can help with that. It’s a reminder that the sharing of food is one of the building blocks of human society. And it’s a reminder that most of us in modern society need to stop and make a list not of the things to acquire on Black Friday, but of the things that make our lives full and rich and blessed.
And for me, one day out of 365 days each year isn’t quite enough for that, but it’s a good start. I think today should be for remembering and acknowledging that American history isn’t just red, white, blue and success, but also one of tragedy and oppression – and a commitment to doing better. Let’s not just pardon some turkeys here, let’s actually figure out how to pardon – literally and figuratively – some of our fellow humans. The ones with less than us. The ones who said or did something cruel. The ones we have no emotional charity for on a typical day, whomever those are.
I try to remember at least one thing I am grateful for, every day. Whenever the litany of life’s annoyances take over, I make a list – my children, my husband, my home, my family, that I am warm and safe and well-fed, when so many aren’t, the sunset after the rain, my wonderful friends who make my life so much more beautiful and colorful. And it works. Whatever it is, whatever is on my mind, slowly becomes less powerful. Gratitude, thankfulness – they have huge power to change the human perspective from what you lack to what you have, and to find strength to bring that gratitude into the world. Thanksgiving becomes an action rather than a single day of the year.
For all the people and possibilities that have brought me to where I am in life, I’m so grateful. For all of it, thanksgiving.
And to you and yours as well. Whether you are eating turkey and stuffing or just sleeping in, may it be a wonderful day for you and yours.