Once November starts, the remainder of the year just flies by with all the plans, festivities and the extra work that goes along with them. The frenzied pace can prevent us from really enjoying the purpose of the special days of thanksgiving and other holidays at the end of the year. Take some time now to think about Thanksgiving. The name of this American holiday spells out clearly the purpose of the day. The word “holiday” is an old English word meaning “Holy Day.” Basically, its a day that is set apart and made more special than other days. So Thanksgiving is a special day for us to give thanks. Duh. Everyone knows that. But do you know just how important it is to give thanks, or even how to give thanks in a meaningful way?
Our natural inclination is to focus on problems and fears. This can lead to overlooking or disregarding the blessings and the things that “just worked out” in life. One sign of depression and chronic stress is the tendency to perceive negative life events as a theme rather than just part of life’s ups and downs. On the flip side, a sign of psychological health is the ability to remain hopeful and celebrate the good life-giving moments. It’s saying “We live!” rather than “We haven’t died yet”.
We learn in grade-school that the Pilgrims, along with the native Americans who helped them survive in this new land, met together for a celebration of thanksgiving in the fall of 1621. Our yearly holiday is based on this “first” thanksgiving. What did the Pilgrims have to be thankful for? They came to a new land to escape religious persecution in Europe only to face the threat of death from starvation and exposure. Almost half of the Pilgrims died that first winter. But they didn’t give up hope or their faith.
In the spring of 1621, after their first terrible winter, the Pilgrims had an unexpected visitor. Samoset, an Abenaki tribesman who knew some English, walked into their midst and said “Welcome, Englishmen!” They had a beer together. He spent the night with them. This was the Pilgrims’ first diplomatic contact with the native people of North America. Several days later, Samoset brought a friend named Squanto. To their amazement, Squanto, of the Wampanoag tribe, was even more fluent in English than Samoset. The back story on Squanto is that he had been captured in New England in 1608 by European traders and sold as a slave in Spain. He eventually traveled to England and lived there several years before making it back to America, just a few years before the Pilgrims arrived. Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to cultivate and live off the land in New England and helped establish diplomatic relations with neighboring tribes. That “just worked out” for the Pilgrims, right?
On that first Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims were celebrating survival and the Providential presence of Squanto. If Squanto hadn’t been captured and taken to Europe and made the journey back to his homeland, would the Pilgrims have survived? Probably not. Could they have survived without the hospitality of neighboring tribes? Definitely not. Together with those that helped them, the Pilgrims set aside a day to celebrate the blessings, grace, and friends that made their lives possible.
It’s been 400 years since the Pilgrims marked their first Thanksgiving at Plymouth. Time marches on. Every year we have struggles and we have victories: Life-giving and Life-Taking moments. When you gather with others this Thanksgiving, take some time to reflect together on the blessings and joys that you experienced in the past year. Be thankful for them. Name them out loud and lift them up in a moment of celebration. That’s what Thanksgiving Day is all about.