The end of November is a time of Thanksgiving in our nation. I remember when I was young the scene and situation I was taught about in school; the picture of Pilgrims and Native Americans around the table, a visual to us children about what happened long ago.
Historian Nathaniel Philbrick in his book Mayflower, describes the scene that likely transpired on that first Thanksgiving. Pumpkin, cranberries and mashed potatoes were not served on the tables that were brought out of the rough hewn Pilgrim homes put together a mere 11 months after their arrival. Turkey and deer were the meats on the table; turkey provided by the Pilgrims, five fresh deer brought by the Pokanoket tribe of the Wampanoag people. There was no silverware; they ate with their hands and hunting knives.
What is amazing in the description is a review of the first months of the Pilgrims in the New World. They had survived not by keeping to themselves, but by engaging the residents of the land they landed on. They made mistakes, and they made amends. The Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people recognized that, at least in the early years around that first Thanksgiving, they were better together than they were separate.
Often during Thanksgiving meals there is a tradition shared by many; people go around the table to share something they are thankful for. Often the thanks are oriented to those around the table. We give thanks for our families, or our friends. If someone has experienced healing from a surgery or from an illness, it is a joy to give thanks for that. We give thanks for good food, thanks to God for many blessings. Someone might slip in a sports reference, for a victory, or a championship or a surprisingly good year. Some might go the route of politics to give thanks for a recent victory in an election — in a family with divided loyalties this can call out the sighs or the eye rolls.
I would like to offer an additional challenge, I guess you would call it, for the thanks that you offer this year. It’s a call for Thanksgiving inspired by the first one: thanks offered beyond one’s self, beyond something gained, beyond the “low lying fruit” that are easy to give thanks for. The people gathered at the first Thanksgiving found they needed to be thankful for the others that were there; the Pilgrim for the Native American, and vice versa. Both viewed the other as strangely different. There were still suspicions by one side about what the other wanted, in addition to learning what each other needed. And yet here they were on a sunny fall day, together. Thankful for the life they had — together. Thankful for the “other” that they were sharing a meal with, the same gathering place.
This can happen even at a family gathering; the arrival of the family member whom everyone turns their head to see. It can happen in the neighborhood where we might pass by each other every day without a word, but then find ourselves walking down the same side of the street. Or at church, parked side by side, or in the same hallway with someone we haven’t agreed with, or never really got to know. It is worth our time to consider, to name: what am I thankful for, how can I be thankful for this “other?”
Such are the times we live in that the memory of this first Thanksgiving becomes all the more valuable. At the heart of this earliest of American holidays is a Thanksgiving that requires us to look beyond our first reaction or judgment, and to take the time — and the risk — of seeing what is good and worthy of thanks of whoever we find ourselves eating with, and living with, not just for your or my benefit, but for the good of us all. A blessed and happy Thanksgiving!
The Rev. Paul Pingel, pastor of Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Waynesboro, is a columnist for The News Virginian.