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.
In a couple hours, Siobhain and I will get on a plane and fly down to Maryland, for a big Thanksgiving dinner at my in-laws. They’ll have about 12 or 15 people, and a big turkey with all the trimmings. And we’ll meet the newest member of our family: my sister-in-law’s first grandchild, my first grand nephew, Jacob, who was born earlier this month. Thanksgiving will be a time for family, and for celebration.
But I know it won’t be that way for everyone.
The other day, I was walking down Continental Avenue and passed the McDonald’s by the train station. 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 turkey and pumpkin pie. It will be a hamburger and a milkshake.
But 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 Styrofoam carton, it is all 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 all remember that God is near.
The pilgrims knew that. And so did the Samaritan. He lived a life of disfigurement and shame. But he trusted, and he listened, and he was healed — changed forever, made new.
He could have gone on his way. But he didn’t. He couldn’t. He had to thank The One who made his miracle possible.
Twenty centuries later, that anonymous figure 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.