Thanksgiving: A triumph of heart over human differences

The essence of the 1621 Thanksgiving celebration took on a greater value as mutually assured survival became a foundation for harmony and a rich exchange of genuine compassion, gratitude, and a triumph of the heart over superficial human differences. Photo: Public domain

SAN JOSE, California, November 22, 2012 — On Thanksgiving Day, most American citizens partake in some sort of a meal, or even a feast. Most likely, many will express personal gratitude for perceived blessings from throughout the year. Yet, the original significance of this harvest festival or celebration of life can easily be lost amidst the turkey, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie.

If one considers the Thanksgiving holiday from the standpoint of history, it may have more mythic qualities than historical significance. However, it is amazing that such a simple harvest festival has been remembered for a period of nearly 400 years. In 2012, Americans would not have a November holiday of this significance without the kindness of heart and substantial generosity of the American Indians. In addition, without genuine gratitude honestly demonstrated by the Pilgrim leaders for the help they received from the Wampanoag people, there would not have been an invitation extended for a harvest feast between the two peoples.

Much deeper than three days of feasting in 1621, was the sincere overtures of trust and the development of friendship that germinated between the designated leaders of the English settlers and the key characters among the indigenous peoples. Although the food they consumed was essential for survival, at the core of this harvest festival were mutual efforts to suspend reactions to cultural disparities, obvious racial differences, as well as serious religious prejudices. This Thanksgiving event essentially demonstrated how two diverse groups of human beings overcame severe differences to celebrate life.

Unfortunately, over the centuries, numerous myths developed regarding this foundation festival that became known as Thanksgiving. Many of these myths have effectively diminished the deeper or more substantive meaning woven into the relationships which were established in that moment in time. The three days of feasting would not have happened without foundations of friendly human relationships that transcended the fundamental differences between the two distinct types of people.

To be sure, this unusual event would have been a first for both groups of people. The written documentation from the Pilgrims reveals some of what happened at the festival, but by no means could it have been considered a serious holy day of thanksgiving as it would not fit the definition of a solemn religious ceremony entirely dedicated to offering praise and gratitude to God. Certainly, at the other end of the table, the Indians were not Christians by any sense of the definition, and their own ceremonies of thanksgiving to the creator had not normally included white folk.

Ironically, the Separatists (the true designation of the Pilgrims) did not generally attend or celebrate many secular holidays. However, the festive event referred to by Pilgrim writings was a joyous celebration of gratitude that blended traditional harvest festivals from each of the two cultures. Europeans had celebrated harvest festivals for thousands of years. The roots of Halloween are embedded in ancient Celtic harvest festivals. In a like manner, many American Indian groups for thousands of years would offer gratitude for bountiful harvests and celebrate thankfulness and hope for survival another year.

The rigid Pilgrim beliefs designated a day of thanksgiving to be dedicated to gratitude to God for some incredibly significant event like surviving a plague or the end of a drought or a war. The Puritans, who were equally as rigid in their beliefs (or moreso) as the Separatists, also held the belief that “thanksgiving” days were serious occasions fulfilled through offering of solemn prayers, pious humiliation, and praise of God’s efforts in their lives. Such holy days would have been observed more strictly through much more structured or traditional church services.

By contrast, the Wampanoag Indians, one of the many Algonquian speaking peoples of the Northeast Woodland nations, often celebrated bountiful harvests. The Wampanoag would offer thanks to the Creator at the beginning of a new year in Springtime and at the beginning of planting season, at various points during the Summer growing season (i.e. early harvest, etc.), in the Autumn at the end of the harvest season, and even in the midst of the Winter. Their very survival depended upon their reliance on the successful harvesting of crops as well as good fishing and hunting.

This harvest celebration would have been a most extraordinary affair as it would have marked the first time that the Indians would have celebrated a harvest with the unusual humans from across the ocean. The Wampanoag probably understood very little of the Pilgrim’s Christian religion and solemn manners of worship. However, their sachem, Massasoit, had been willing to help the English through the efforts of Tisquantum, and had accepted the invitation of the Pilgrims to the feast. In reality, the event kept building and unfolding, and the people kept eating. Eventually, it lasted for three full days.

What shows up on the surface of history is that two culturally diverse peoples gathered together in a lengthy celebration because they shared a common experience of the need to survive in the midst of harsh environmental conditions. Historical records only show a period of approximately 40 years of peace between the Europeans and the Wampanoag Confederation before their original friendship eroded. However, that this original friendship ended in tragedy should not really be the primary takeaway.

On a much deeper level, the essence of the Thanksgiving gathering was the survival of both groups, in spite of the various differences between the people. Sincere willingness to share food took on a greater value as mutually assured survival became a foundation for harmony. The mutual respect and expression of trust prevailed over suspicion and distrust. This was critical for the event to succeed. Elements of human goodness contributed to the bonding between these two diverse peoples. They may not have known what the future would hold, but at that moment, what was important was that they were alive and well and they could celebrate the value of life. This festival can be viewed as a rich exchange of genuine compassion, gratitude, and a triumph of the human heart.

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Dennis Jamison
Dennis Jamison
Dennis Jamison reinvented his life after working for a multi-billion dollar division of Johnson & Johnson for several years. Now semi-retired, he is an adjunct faculty member  at West Valley College in California.  He also currently writes a column on history and one on American freedom for the Communities at the Washington Times.


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