Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Thanksgiving Eve

In anticipation of our national holiday of Thanksgiving this week, tonight I watched The American Experience: The Pilgrims on PBS. It was very well done, and I actually learned a good deal from it - not so much about the Pilgrims' religious and political beliefs, which story is well known, but about the Pilgrims' relationship with their environment and in particular with the Indians they encountered. 

Everyone knows that some of the Natives who befriended the Pilgrims (actually made a mutually beneficial alliance with them against other Indian tribes) already spoke English as a result of earlier encounters with Europeans. But I did not know how extensive had been the devastation brought about by a plague that had almost wiped out some of the tribes that had previously lived in the area that was to become Plymouth. All this had happened in the years just before the Pilgrims' arrival in 1620, so that what they found was not some pristine wilderness but a place of death and desolation. Thus, what we now look back upon as the first "Thanksgiving," was, as the documentary makes so painfully clear, really a celebration of survival and relief from the shared, mutual losses of the two peoples - both Native and English.

The Pilgrims had abandoned Europe early in the apocalyptic conflict of that continent's Thirty Years' War - only to find the fruit of another apocalypse in America. Out of all this tragedy, a new society would be built. If it wasn't quite the biblical "City on a Hill" that it aspired to be, it at least aspired, attempting the next best thing with a social contract ("the Mayflower Compact") creating for a fallen world a government based on the consent of the governed.

We will celebrate Thanksgiving this year - as so often in our history since Abraham Lincoln nationalized the holiday in 1863 - in a time of turmoil and war, when once again the world seems poised on the abyss of apocalyptic crisis. As Lincoln wisely sensed, there is a lesson from the faith which the Pilgrims kept even in a time of crisis and place of devastation and the hope that they lived by even in spite of their suffering and grief.

(Photo: Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, 1914, Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth)

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