“Mom! Mom! Thanksgiving Day—who are we thanking?” I’ll never forget hearing that question from a young child in the grocery store. Her mother was trying to explain to her why they were buying a turkey. “It’s just a holiday, honey.”
Welcome to the great divide in America.
A recent trailer of a summer movie captured the same cultural divide expressed in the little girl’s question. At an extended family dinner, a woman referred to a Thanksgiving-like spread that she had prepared and announced that the chickens, as well as everything on the table, were all local and organic. One of her young nieces asked, “How did you kill the chickens, with an axe or a knife?” Stunned, the aunt explained, “No, they’re rotisserie chickens. You buy them on…it’s already dead.”
American notions of Thanksgiving vary as widely as the family backgrounds of the people who celebrate the holiday. The child who asked her mom “Who are we thanking?” understood that someone was supposed to be receiving the thanks that they were giving, just as the young niece at the dinner table understood that for the chickens to end up on the table as food, there had to be a butcher. It seems that the adults are the ones who have forgotten what is obvious even to little children.
When Our Leaders Forget
Discussing President Obama’s 2011 Thanksgiving address to the nation, Todd Starnes pointed out in his article “Obama Leaves God Out of Thanksgiving Address” that the President never mentioned whom we were thanking, only what we were thankful for: the service and perseverance of other Americans. The repurposing of the holiday is clearly seen in the President’s recounting of the history of the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving Day:
“The very first Thanksgiving was a celebration of community during a time of great hardship, and we have followed that example ever since. Even when the fate of our union was far from certain…Americans drew strength from each other. They had faith that tomorrow would be better than today. We’re grateful that they did. As we gather around the table, we pause to remember the pilgrims, pioneers, and patriots who helped make this country what it is. They faced impossible odds, and yet somehow, they persevered. Today, it’s our turn.”1
“Somehow, They Persevered”
When the President described that he and his family—like many American families—would spend the day eating and watching football, he added, “and reflecting on how truly lucky we truly are.”2
Although this pattern repeated in 2012 and 2014, somehow his 2013 address was different. In his article, “Flashback: Obama Leaves God Out of Thanksgiving Day Speech,” Rusty Weiss noted that “In 2013, President Obama acknowledged that on Thanksgiving, we should remember that ‘we rise or fall as one Nation, under God.'”3 There is no clear reason, however, for this shift in tone during this particular year.
This divide in history has very little to do with President Obama personally. Instead, it has to do with the general state of our Union. It’s a barometer of what our leadership remembers and promotes about the history of our nation. When those in power chalk up our nation’s formation and early survival to “somehow, they persevered,” we know that the youngest of us sitting around the Thanksgiving Day table this year may never hear from our leaders about the God whom the Pilgrims found to be faithful and deserving of their thanks.
How Did the Pilgrims Persevere?
The surviving Pilgrims held their first Thanksgiving feast in 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. They were celebrating their first harvest by giving thanks to the God of the Bible for allowing them to survive both the journey and the American winter. Much of what we know about this feast comes from the journals of two Pilgrims on display in a seventeenth-century living museum called Plimoth Plantation:
“In September/October 1621, the Pilgrims had just harvested their first crops, and they had a good yield. They ‘sent four men on fowling,’ which comes from the one paragraph account by Pilgrim Edward Winslow, one of only two historical sources of this famous harvest feast.”4
From these sources, we learn that the Pilgrims were enjoying a time of great cooperation and knowledge exchange with the indigenous people in their area. However, it was due to the kindness of the Wampanoag, one of the local tribes, that the first Thanksgiving feast had its main entrée: the Wampanoag’s gift of five deer. This is what fueled the three-day feast, not the Pilgrims’ “fowling” abilities. The Wampanoag were farmers and had taught the Pilgrims how and what to farm in their new territory, a land that had experienced disaster only a few years earlier:
“The Pilgrims settled in an area that was once Patuxet, a Wampanoag village abandoned four years prior after a deadly outbreak of a plague, brought by European traders who first appeared in the area in 1616.”5
It was an act of God that the Pilgrims found favor in the sight of the Wampanoag after such an event. They even went on to enjoy a signed peace treaty with them for a period of time.
No Confusion About Whom to Thank
The first Pilgrims settled land that had been the site of a great tragedy, one that had struck both Europeans and the Pilgrims’ Native American neighbors. One would think that this should have been a warning to the Native Americans of their future relations with the settlers, but by a miracle, it wasn’t. On their first Thanksgiving feast, the Pilgrims celebrated the faithfulness of God, because neither the climate nor the social conditions were in favor of their survival.
In light of this, let’s lay to rest any confusion about why Americans celebrate Thanksgiving and about the One we are thanking. There would have been no first Thanksgiving—or any subsequent ones—without the intervention of the God of the Bible, the one the Pilgrims thanked publicly for their harvest and for their very lives.
If this has blessed you, or you would like to share some of your Thanksgiving memories, please comment below.