With a raging pandemic, closed schools, and questions about the safety of gatherings, wouldn’t it make more sense to have a Thanksgiving Day when things have improved, not as they are getting worse?
After all, that’s the way the Pilgrims did it.
This November marks 400 years since the Mayflower reached Cape Cod, the Pilgrims’ first stop before settling in what became Plymouth. The next year, after a good harvest, they and the Wampanoags enjoyed a few days of feasting together. In the 19th century, New Englanders began referring to this occasion as the “First Thanksgiving” and the Pilgrims became indelibly associated with our late-November holiday.
The Pilgrims themselves would want nothing to do with what the American Thanksgiving has become, and not just because of the gluttony and football. The majority of the Mayflower passengers were Separatists — radical Puritans who had rejected the Church of England as irredeemably corrupt. And like other Puritans, the Pilgrims discarded recurrent holidays.
For instance, when some newcomers in the colony engaged in Christmas merriment, Pilgrim leaders quickly put an end to the fun. For these strict souls, the Sabbath was the only holy day.
The Pilgrims and their descendants in Plymouth did hold days of thanksgiving. However, instead of observing a fixed date on the calendar, they held their thanksgivings following what they understood to be unusual blessings. If rain ended a drought, if English forces prevailed in war, if political developments back in England favored Puritans, communities gathered to give thanks.
These thanksgivings were solemn assemblies of psalm singing, prayers, and sermons. Oftentimes, feasting followed. In 1636, for instance, the townspeople of Scituate observed a thanksgiving on a frigid December morning. Then the people enjoyed the rest of the day, “the poorer sort being invited [by] the richer.”
By this standard, the “First Thanksgiving” of Pilgrim lore wasn’t a proper thanksgiving at all. No source from the time describes it as such. It was a harvest celebration. The colony’s governor, William Bradford, sent men to shoot “fowl,” which may well have included turkeys. This attracted the attention of the Wampanoags, and the great sachem Ousamequin and 90 of his men came to investigate. The Wampanoag men stayed in Plymouth for several days, contributed to the bounty by shooting five deer, and joined in the repast.
The two peoples saw the abundant harvest as a harbinger of better days ahead. Both peoples had endured unfathomable hardship and misery. Prior to the arrival of the Pilgrims, an epidemic seeded by other Europeans had devastated Wampanoag communities. In some places, nearly everyone died. When the Pilgrims explored Cape Cod and the region to the west of Plymouth, they found landscapes full of graves and bones. Then the Pilgrims themselves started to die. By the end of their first winter at Plymouth, barely half of the 102 Mayflower passengers remained alive.
When faced with scourges, the Pilgrims responded by holding days of fasting and repentance, gatherings of even more solemn prayer and preaching. Presidents John Adams and James Madison continued this tradition into the early years of the American republic. Massachusetts and other New England states eventually transformed these particular occasions into an annual “Fast Day,” a springtime counterpoint to autumn’s Thanksgiving Day. Massachusetts and Maine later replaced Fast Day with Patriots‘ Day.
How does this relate to 2020? President-elect Joe Biden recently spoke of a “dark winter” ahead. In many parts of the country, Americans are walking through the valley of the shadow of death. The COVID-19 pandemic is surging, not abating. Vaccine trials and better treatments provide some light in this darkness, but that light remains distant.
According to their accounts, the Pilgrims responded to their own dark winter with resolution and charity, bearing one another’s burdens to the best of their ability. They did not succumb to infighting or factionalism — but the Pilgrims never would have observed a thanksgiving under such circumstances.
Regardless of whether or how we gather this November, most of us Americans will find reasons to give thanks. As a people, we are more keen on feasting than fasting. That’s all well and good, but if you find thankfulness elusive this year, you’ll be in good Pilgrim company. And when the pandemic ends, whenever it ends, days of thanksgiving would be most appropriate.
John G. Turner is a professor of religious studies at George Mason University and the author of “They Knew They Were Pilgrims: Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty.”