The first Thanksgiving wasn’t called Thanksgiving and it was probably in October, according to “Mayflower,” Nathanial Philbrick’s recent chronicle of the founding of the first English colony in America.
There were probably more Native Americans than Pilgrims at what was a modest meal to mark the harvest. Also aboard the Mayflower and in Plymouth were others fleeing religious persecution but who were not Pilgrims.
We bring this up not to make your Thanksgiving more complicated, but to note that our interpretation of Thanksgiving at times says more about our desire for simpler times than it does about the complex times that brought a permanent European settlement to these shores.
Those on board the Mayflower did not land where they were supposed to land. The way up the Hudson River was too dangerous.
Lacking accurate maps after months at sea, they went into an area that had recently been ravaged by disease and which was politically unstable with the Native American nations shifting in allegiance and power. And the European presence was not new. Native American leaders had seen it before. And they had seen it fail in the starkest definition of failure.
So after a bit less than a year, the community marked the harvest probably with little thought of posterity. There was much more of the story to come. There would be more hard times, alliances would shift, wars would be fought, peace would be made and tensions would keep company with hopes.
Soon enough, when their immediacy passed and still other events rendered them into history, they would become chapters in books.
And families would mark the milestones they still mark today, remembering departed loved ones, thinking of those far away, welcoming new arrivals and additions.
Perhaps that is why we continue to return to Thanksgiving and adapt that specific story of 17th century America to our experience.
We make the harvest meal a feast at a long table in a well-lit, heated and spacious cabin with all involved wearing their best clothes. It would be another decade before Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop, aboard the Arabella, would write: “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.”
We don’t know all of the traditions or alliances or tensions. The context we identify with is life at its most basic – families.
In this world, there are few guarantees as enduring as our commitment to each other and with each other. The future will change us and our specific plans even as it is informed by what we have done in the past. It will take us to places we never imagined as well as places we have imagined all too well. What remains and endures is far more substantial than what is on a map or the wish list of an orderly life – each other.