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Reflections on Thanksgiving

Knowing nothing about the reality of the Pilgrims’ journey to America or those first years of deprivation and death, it was a fun holiday to celebrate during my younger years. At school, we would make Pilgrim and Indian hats and headpieces, eat vegetable soup and cornbread, and sing loudly, “Come Ye Thankful People Come.”

Reality for those Pilgrims was most different. Yes, they were thankful for land and their safe travel across the ocean. But uncertainty and fear of the unknown must have gripped their hearts, too. No one knew what the wilderness held.

After more than two horrendous months at sea, Cape Cod on the horizon must have been an extremely welcome sight for the men, women and children who had boarded the Mayflower on 16 September, 1620.

With many suffering from crippling seasickness – after battling strong winds and monstrous waves during their epic 66-day voyage across the Atlantic – few of the 102 on board would have cared about missing their planned destination of Northern Virginia, and the Hudson River (today New York).

The faces and body language in this painting show us a more authentic view of the Plymouth Rock that the Mayflower brought the Pilgrims to. Anxiety marks each one, even as they move forward.

They were committed to settling in this new country, and they were pledged to each other in community by signing the Mayflower Compact.

The Mayflower Compact – as it is known today – was signed by those 41 “true” Pilgrims on 11 November, 1620, and became the first governing document of Plymouth Colony.

It declared that the colonists were loyal to the King of England, that they were Christians who served God, that they would make fair and just laws, and that they would work together for the good of the Colony.

The men also chose John Carver as Plymouth Colony’s first governor. The women and “strangers” were not allowed to vote.

Leaving England nine weeks late, New England’s harsh weather fiercely threatened their survival. In December, the men built crude shelters for the winter; the women and children stayed on the ship. There is a melancholy tone in the journal entries for that winter:

“…Aboute no one, it began to raine…at night. It did freee &snow …still the cold weather continued…very wet and rainy, with the greatest gusts of wind ever we saw…frost and foule weather hindered us much; this time of the yeare seldom could we worke half the week.”

During that winter, more than half of the heads of households died. Five of the eighteen wives lived through the scourges of pneumonia, tuberculosis, and scurvy.

Starkness covers this possible scene of their going to church in the wilderness.

On March 24, a journal entry sums their situation up:

“Dies Elizabeth, the wife of Mr. Edward Winslow. N.B. This month thirteen of our number die. And in three mons past dies halfe our company…Of a hundred persons, scarce fifty remain, the living scarce able to bury the dead.”

What a courageous group of men, women, and children; there are no words to laud their fortitude. During the third week of March, the weakened survivors from the Mayflower rowed ashore to their new homes in New Plimouth in those huts that needed rebuilding.

They could have given up and returned to England. They could have thrown up their hands in despair. But their faith was in God, and they chose to not let the hardships make them bitter. Their trust laid the enduring foundations of our country America, and they were thankful.

If these few could fight, fall, and rise to fight again against wild animals, extreme weather, poor housing, and a starvation diet, I believe we should certainly be thankful this November, 2022.

The first winter was devastating for the people of Plymouth Colony, with the death of 51 of the 102 people in their community. The following spring the Pilgrims, along with help from their Indian friends, planted crops that yielded an abundant sprill and fall harvest.  On December 13, 1621, the Pilgrims instituted a three-day feast of thanksgiving to God and celebrated with their Indian friends.

William Bradford, the first governor of the Pilgrims said, “Thus out of small beginnings greater things have been produced by His hand that made all things of nothing, and gives being to all things that are; and, as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone unto many…”

An unknown Pilgrim wrote this prayer. “O Lord our God and heavenly Father, which of Thy unspeakable mercy towards us, hast provided meate and drinke for the nourishment of our weake bodies. Grant us peace to use them reverently, as from Thy hands, with thankful hearts: let Thy blessing rest upon these Thy good creatures, to our comfort and sustentation: and grant we humbly beseech Thee, good Lord, that as we doe hunger and thirst for this food of our bodies, so our soules may earnestly long after the food of eternal life, through Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour, Amen”

What a strong group of men and women the Pilgrims were. As we enjoy our own time on this national holiday next week, let’s remember those whose lives marked that first Thanksgiving.

The hymn, “Come ye Thankful People, Come” is now on my mind. We have much to be thankful for this year.

Happy Thanksgiving from our house to yours.


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