A (Happy?) Thanksgiving Story

Subtitle: A Pre-Thanksgiving Day historical meditation with biblical antecedents on human brokenness in quest of present-day hope


A pharaoh arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore, they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor (Exodus 1.8-11a).

Thanksgiving Day. An American national day of gratitude for the harvest and for the blessings of the preceding year.

The story of its origins is simple. For many details are unknown.

This simple story also is complex. For it involves humans; their impulses, instincts, and interactions.

This simple and complex story is sacred. For it affirms the honoring of the eternal bond between Creator and creature, creature and creature; a bond of compassion and justice.

This simple and complex sacred story also is profane. For it attests to the breaking of that same bond.

Members of the English Separatist Church, a Puritan sect, escaping religious persecution, set sail aboard the Mayflower, landing at the promised land of Plymouth Rock, in what is now Massachusetts, in December 1620. That first winter was harsh. Many died.

The harvest of 1621, however, was bountiful. The remaining colonists celebrated with a feast, inviting the Wampanoags, a coast-dwelling Native American people, who had helped the settlers survive their first year.

The First Thanksgiving, Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863-1930)

This banquet, like a traditional English harvest festival, lasted three days! (Such a commemoration wasn’t strange to the Wampanoags who, in thanksgiving for their fellowship with the Creator and creation, annually observed six festivals!)

This gathering of two very different peoples, expressing a friendship forged in suffering’s fire, had a sacred, sacramental element; being an outward, visible sign of inward, spiritual grace.

It would be the happiest of all endings if, nearly 400 years later, we could read a story of lasting friendship. Sorrowfully, we cannot.

“A pharaoh arose who knew not Joseph.” This Egyptian leader, without firsthand knowledge of the history of service of the Hebrews, thus without desire to address and assuage his mistrust and fear, enslaved the people.

As elements of the human story often repeat, so it was that many new English colonists knew not the service of the Wampanoags. Fear grew. Intolerance spread. Friendship weakened. Within two generations, the children of those who feasted in thanksgiving in 1621 were killing one another in what came to be known as King Philip’s War.

King Philips War, engraving (1810), artist unknown

One result of that conflict was the enslavement and virtual destruction of a number of the tribes of native peoples and the opening of southern New England to unrestrained colonial expansion.

This simple and complex, sacred and profane thanksgiving story speaks of a friendship between diverse peoples that took root and flowered from the ground of shared experience. It also tells how fear and mistrust can break the bonds of the deepest fellowship.

In remembering this story, I, with hope, pledge anew to strive daily, in thought and feeling, intent and action, to fulfill that eternal bond between Creator and creation, creature and creature; that bond of compassion and justice.


Note: King Philip’s War (1675-1678), an armed conflict in New England between native inhabitants and colonists, is named for Metacomet, the Wampanoag chief, who, I consider it ironic, had adopted the name Philip because of the friendly relations a generation before between his father Massasoit and the Mayflower Pilgrims.

The First Thanksgiving 1621, Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863-1930)
King Philip’s War, engraving (1810), artist unknown

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