Most of us know the story. It was the autumn of 1621. In Plymouth, Massachusetts, after a rich harvest, the men, women and children who had survived the first year in the New World gathered for a feast to offer thanks. One of the pilgrims wrote at the time: “By the goodness of God, we are so far from want.”
What was it like? With some internet research, I found that the menu for that first Thanksgiving had some surprises. It was not necessarily turkey and pumpkin pie. They probably ate venison. The pilgrims didn’t have forks; they used spoons, and, more than likely ate with their hands. The food was probably a lot more fatty than we are used to. High cholesterol numbers were unheard of and of little concern in their harsh lifestyle. The first pilgrims were more worried about plague and the pox than about lifestyle diseases.
They didn’t have much sugar, so sweets and desserts were probably not on the menu. So, forget the pumpkin pie; it probably wasn’t there. But whatever it may actually have involved, that autumn feast left us with an enduring tradition: people gathering around a table, giving thanks for surviving in an uncertain and difficult new place.
A few years ago, the Unitarian minister Peter Fleck suggested we look at all this a bit differently. “Maybe,” he wrote, “the pilgrims weren’t thankful because they had survived. But maybe they had survived…because they were thankful.”
These were people who lived their lives in wonder and hope, grateful for everything: the hard winds and deep snows…the frightening evenings and hopeful mornings …the long journey that had taken them to a new place. They knew how to express gratitude.
Gratitude doesn’t always come easily. We all know that generosity – the giving of a gift – means thinking more about others than about oneself. It represents an act of love. But so does being thankful. To give thanks is to extend beyond oneself. It is to remember whence comes the gift.
There is love in that. A love for the gift – and for the one who gave it.
Reverend Fleck suggested that maybe that is what enabled those pilgrims to thrive and prosper: a humble appreciation for whatever God gave them, trusting that He would give them what they needed. It’s an optimistic message, really — and gratitude, I think, carries within itself a spirit of optimism. Maybe that spirit can teach us something, as we endure our own hard winds and deep snows – the storms of our own lives. Especially now.
Later this month, Ken and I will travel to Delaware, where we will gather with family and friends for a grand Thanksgiving dinner. There will be 8 or 10 of us and we will share turkey with all the trimmings. Thanksgiving will be a time for family and friends who form a family of the heart, and for celebration.
But I know it won’t be that way for everyone.
The other day, I was passing the McDonald’s near our home. There was a big sign taped to the window. I think it tells us something about America this autumn. The sign said: “Open 24 hours on Thanksgiving Day.” For a lot of Americans, that will be the place for feasting. That will be their holiday. It won’t involve a grand buffet with turkey and pumpkin pie. It will be a hamburger and maybe a milkshake. But even so, Thanksgiving isn’t about giving thanks for having a lot. It’s about giving thanks for just having. For being. For knowing that whatever we have, whether it is served on a china plate or a cardboard carton, all of it is a gift. The prayers whispered over a Happy Meal are just as precious to God as the ones said over the turkey and stuffing.
And all of us, no matter where we find ourselves praying, will be bound together by one simple word: grace. At a few McDonald’s this Thanksgiving, I’m sure that grace will be said. And, I am just as sure of this: that grace will be present – the grace of gratitude – the grace of thanking God for whatever gift He gives. And in the giving, and in the receiving, and in the thanking, there is something that transcends time and place. There is love.
Love for what we have, and love for what we have been given. And love for the God who gives it. Because no matter how fierce the winds, or how unforgiving the storm, at least on this day we shall seek to remember that our God is near.
The pilgrims knew that. Nearly four centuries later, those pilgrims left us a legacy, and a lesson: a beautiful example of what it means to have an “attitude of gratitude.”It is an attitude we all need to nurture — not just today, but every day. Gratitude can open our hearts – and change our lives – if only we let it.
Or, as Reverend Fleck so beautifully put it: maybe the pilgrims weren’t thankful because they survived.
Maybe they survived…because they were thankful.