Very little is known about the 1621 event in Plymouth that is the model for our Thanksgiving. The only references to the event are two letters reprinted below:
“And God be praised we had a good increase… Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”
Edward Winslow, Mourt’s Relation: D.B. Heath, ed. Applewood Books. Cambridge, 1986. p 82
Recreation of the “First Thanksgiving” in the 17th-Century English Village at Plimoth Plantation
“They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which is place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.
William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation: S.E. Morison, ed. Knopf. N.Y., 1952. p 90
In each of these letters the writer remarks about their great abundance. In the first letter Edward Winslow says, “And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.” In the second letter William Bradford remarks, “had all things in good plenty”, and “Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty…”
The first recorded Thanksgiving was not just to celebrate the harvest. According to Bradford’s letter they were also celebrating “being all well recovered in health and strength”. You see, according to Governor Bradford’s account of their voyage, within “two or three months’ time of making landfall, half of our company died, especially in January and February, being the depth of winter, and wanting houses and other comforts; being infected with the scurvy and other diseases which this long voyage and our unaccommodating conditions had brought upon them.” Of 24 households that arrived, four were wiped out completely and only four families were untouched by death that first year. That’s a significant loss of life; and yet, they gave thanks.
Though they had lost many families, the Puritans (now referred to as Pilgrims) did have a great deal to be thankful for. They had plenty of good health, food, shelter and new friends. They were finally in a position of not having to want for anything. Keep in mind they did not have any of our modern conveniences or luxuries that so many of us take for granted like electricity, cell phones, iPads, laptops, Facebook, television, The Bachelor, American Idol, or even indoor plumbing for that matter. Yet it seems like our generation always has to have the latest model, the most gigs, the newest trend…gimme, gimme, gimme. It absolutely floors me to watch newlyweds on HGTV buying their first home and they insist on having five bedrooms, 3,000 square feet and a budget of $500K. Geez-Louise people, my first home was 940 square feet, two bedrooms and about $100K. Just how quickly do you want to go into debt and foreclosure?
I heard Jen Hatmaker share a story about a young boy from a third-world country (Ethiopia I think) who visited her home in Austin and was in awe of how “rich” they were. To the young boy the Hatmakers were rich. WE are rich! It’s just a matter of perspective. I met a young woman who moved to the U.S. from Kazakhstan and was overwhelmed by all of the restaurants, grocery stores and Walmart. She’d never seen so many televisions for sale in one place in so many sizes. “In my country”, she said, “there may only be two televisions on the shelf for sale and never this much food in one place”. On one occasion I heard about a man who had ice in his drink for the first time on an airplane. He never had ice before! Remember the scene from the movie Castaway after Tom Hanks’ character’s coming home party where he is left in the room alone with all that food and I’m sure he was thinking something like, “These people just don’t get how good they’ve got it ” or “What a waste!”
This Thanksgiving, as we sit (or stand) around the table, the turkey and all the trimmings, let us reflect on the past year of God’s grace and goodness, being careful not to put conditions on His goodness because God is good in spite of our circumstances. I mean, I hear people say things like, “I may be unemployed but God is good because I haven’t had to dip into my savings.” So, does that mean God is not good if I had to dip into mine? God is good and faithful even in the midst of suffering. Many of us this year have experienced illness, loss of a loved one, unemployment, debt, etc. But like Paul, we must learn to rejoice and give thanks in any circumstance.
“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”
Grace and Peace to you in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.