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On a day like today, when families gather together to share whatever
bounty the labors of the year have brought forth, to offer thanks to
whatever God they worship for the pleasures and trials the year has made
manifest, it is simply too much for me to consider contemporary issues and
problems. But there still are lessons in the history and practice of
Thanksgiving worth considering.
Although it is no doubt related to the harvest festivals held in almost
every culture since the beginning of sowing and reaping, Thanksgiving is a
peculiarly American holiday. Celebrating plenty is common; officially and
reverently giving thanks is not so common.
Like many American traditions, Thanksgiving is loaded with myths and
half-truths. Harvest days of thanksgiving, called by the respective
governors, were common in the New England colonies in the 1700s.
But it wasn’t until the 1840s that the Pilgrim settlement at Plymouth
Colony in Massachusetts was put forward as the embodiment of the
Thanksgiving spirit (see
fascinating historical information and lots of links). It wasn’t until the
1900s that the idea of harmony between the settlers and the indigenous
inhabitants became a big part of the story.
During the 19th century, when Indian wars raged in the West, Thanksgiving
symbolism was more likely to emphasize defending against arrows than sharing
The story of Plymouth Colony does include valid lessons, or at least
suggestions of lessons the romanticized versions miss or glide over. The
storybook version is that the Pilgrims, religious separatists who believed
the Church of England was corrupt and out of touch with biblical faith, came
to America to establish an outpost of purity in 1620. The first winter was
hard, and half the colonists died. But the survivors worked hard, learned
new farming techniques from the natives, and the harvest of 1621 was
bountiful. So a day of Thanksgiving was called and the Indians were invited
to share in the bounty.
The real story is much more interesting.
According to the journal kept by the colony’s governor William Bradford,
in 1621 and 1622 the harvest was far from bountiful, and “this community (so
far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard
much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort.”
The main reason for their problems, the governor and elders finally
decided, was that they had required that “all profits & benefits that are
got by trade, working, fishing, or any other means” were placed in the
common stock, and “all such persons as are of this colony, are to have their
meat, drink, apparel, and all provisions out of the common stock.”
A 19th-century philosopher all too familiar to modern American college
students later summarized this as “from each according to his ability, to
each according to his need.” In Plymouth it led to near-starvation.
After 1622, as Bradford put it, “they began to think how they might raise
as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop.” After much debate,
each family was assigned a parcel of land, told it could use it as it saw
fit, and trade whatever was produced freely. “This had very good success,
for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted
than otherwise would have been by any other means the Governor or any other
In the harvest of 1623, according to Bradford, “instead of famine now God
gave them plenty, and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of
the hearts of many.” Thereafter, “any general want or famine hath not been
amongst them since to this day.” In 1624 the colony was able to begin
Thanksgiving, then, could be seen as an early demonstration on this
continent of the benefits of private property and a free market. Would that
such history were regularly taught — but how likely is that in schools run
by government and for government?
Whatever the history, in modern America Thanksgiving is mainly about
family. Whether you celebrate with solemn prayers, with overstuffing and
football games, or with preparation for manic shopping, may you have your
family about you and have much to be thankful for today.