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? I did a little Googling and found that the menu for that first Thanksgiving had some surprises. It was not necessarily turkey and pumpkin pie. Historians think they probably ate fowl and venison – or deer. The pilgrims didn’t have forks, but used spoons. More likely, they ate with their hands. And the food was probably a lot more fatty than we are used to. Cholesterol was unheard of. They were more worried about plague and the pox.
They didn’t have much sugar, so sweets and deserts were probably not on the menu. So, you can forget the pumpkin pie.
Whatever it may have involved, that meal left us with an enduring tradition: a gathering around a table, giving thanks for surviving in an uncertain and difficult new place.
But a few years ago, the Unitarian minister Peter Fleck suggested we look at this 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 yourself. It represents an act of love. But so does being thankful. To give thanks is to extend yourself. It is to remember where the gift came from.
It is to go out of your way to acknowledge that — like the one cured leper in the gospel, who changed the direction he was headed, and walked back to Jesus, all the way back from the temple, to thank him.
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 the pilgrims to thrive and prosper: a humble appreciation for whatever God gave them, trusting that He would give them what they would need. It’s an optimistic message, really — and gratitude, I think, carries 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.
– Homily for Thanksgiving Day, 2009