Thanksgiving: The First and Essential American Holiday
The events that made all our other holidays possible.
Many Americans — Christian, Jewish and secular — find Thanksgiving to be their favorite holiday of the year. And for good reason beyond the joy of a feast. Thanksgiving was the first holiday of the Pilgrim forefathers, who spoke of their voyage to the New World in terms of a flight from persecution to freedom, much like the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt to reach the Promised Land.
Thanksgiving is the holiday that made the other American holidays possible. Without the Pilgrims having courage, a quest for adventure, and a willingness to sacrifice and risk everything, and absolute faith in their cause and calling, they never would have embarked on the unseaworthy 94-foot Mayflower. Were it not for their dream and determination to find freedom of conscience and religion in the New World there may have never been a July 4th Independence Day or many of the other American holidays we take for granted and celebrate every year.
After a harrowing passage across the Atlantic — one that included wild pitching and broadside batterings by gale force winds and ferocious seas that caused the splitting of one of the ship’s main beams — the Mayflower was blown off course from the intended destination of the established Virginia Colony to wilds of Cape Cod. The Pilgrims knew not where they were nor how to proceed, so they beseeched the Almighty for favor in a safe arrival and in establishing a new and independent settlement.
Now in sight of land after a frightening voyage and facing hunger from depleted provisions, some of the secular Mayflower passengers were clamoring for rebellion. And so under the direction of Pilgrim leaders William Brewster and William Bradford, the drafting of a governing agreement was undertaken to quell unrest and ensure the establishment of a unified settlement that would be acceptable to both their Christian brethren and the secular crewman and merchant adventurers who made up about half the 102 people aboard the Mayflower. That governing document, known as the Mayflower Compact was introduced “solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one another,” and it was specifically referred to as a covenant. A covenant is an unbreakable agreement — with precedents being made between God and towering figures of Jewish history — such as Abraham, Noah, and Moses.
After Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, crossed the Red Sea and journeyed on to Mt. Sinai, God made a covenant with Moses providing the Israelites the Ten Commandments and other laws — a necessary requirement before they could proceed and cross into the Promised Land. Similarly, every able man aboard the Mayflower, had to sign the Mayflower Compact before each could “cross over” and finally set foot in the New World after their ship arrived at Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod at sunrise on Saturday, November 11, 1620. As a covenant adapted to the civil need of forming a government with laws — established “for the general good of the colony” — the Mayflower Compact embodied fundamental principles of self-government and common consent. Thus, the Mayflower Compact was the beginning of democratic government in America, and it is often cited as the cornerstone of the U.S. Constitution.
The fact that all the Pilgrims survived the squalid and cramped ship quarters during the dangerous crossing of a vast ocean, is no doubt partially attributable to the good fortune that the Mayflower had previously been enlisted as a wine transport cargo ship. Unlike most ships, she had a “sweet smell,” from all her decks and bilges being “disinfected” with wine sloshing and soaking from broken barrels of Bordeaux in the many prior crossings of the sometimes stormy English Channel.
That all changed once the Mayflower‘s passengers settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts in December of 1620. The first winter was devastating, with over half the Pilgrims dying, including nearly half the women. Four whole families perished. But it could have been worse.
Had those colonists not settled in Plymouth, adjacent to friendly Native Americans, and had they not befriended two who could speak broken English — Samoset and Squanto — perhaps none would have survived. In fact, just four months after the Pilgrims disembarked in Plymouth, Samoset facilitated the signing of a Peace Treaty between the Pilgrim colonists and Massassoit, the chief of the Wampanoag tribe. At the same time native tribesman were teaching the Pilgrims survival skills, showing them how to hunt, fish and plant various crops, such as corn — which was unknown to Europeans.
The Pilgrims were extraordinarily grateful for the first season’s harvest — modest though it was — and decided to invite Massassoit and some of his people to a three-day long feast, at which they would thank God not only for the harvest, but also for their survival and initial success of a diverse colony that included both Christians and non-believers.
No one knows for sure the exact date of this three-day event patterned after the “harvest fest” in England and also the Feast of Tabernacles in the Jewish calendar. Massassoit arrived with some 100 followers, more than two times the number of the Pilgrims, and for three days they entertained each other and feasted.
This feast later became known as the first Thanksgiving, which we now celebrate on the fourth Thursday of November. Some eighteen months after this feast, it came to be known that Massassoit was on the brink of death from an unknown sickness. Governor William Bradford immediately sent elder Edward Winslow to administer natural herbs, medicines, and prayers to Massassoit. Astonishingly, he made full recovery within days, and remarked, “Now I see the English are my friends and love me; and whilst I live, I will never forget this kindness they have showed me.”
Times are very different than they were nearly 400 years ago at the time of the Mayflower’s voyage to the New World. But the qualities of character that made the Pilgrims exemplary are as relevant today as they were back then. A contemporary Thanksgiving makeover might include: rekindling a quest for adventure; growing the faith to hold on to a vision of a promised land no matter what; mustering the courage to go against the crowd and defend the truth; gaining determination to endure hardship; rejuvenating a joyful willingness to sacrifice for others; revitalizing respect and tolerance of people of different beliefs; and renewing the predisposition to extend love and gratitude at every appropriate opportunity.
Scott Powell is a senior fellow at Discovery Institute and managing partner of RemingtonRand LLC. Three generations of his family lived in the Peabody Bradford House, built by a great grandson of Governor William Bradford in 1760 in Kingston, MA. Reach him at [email protected]
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