It’s the week that Americans gather together to celebrate Thanksgiving, an observance often considered the one All American holiday. It is but then it isn’t because Thanksgiving traces its’ roots to another tradition, one dating back to England called Harvest Home.
When the Pilgrims gathered in the autumn of 1621 for a feast, they celebrated their survival, aided by the intervention of the Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans. The memory of Harvest Home had to figure into their thoughts and planning as they prepared for a feast which included a variety of nature’s bounty.
Our modern dinner is quite different. Although we often have an abundance of food, it came via the supermarket and not our labors. Some of the dishes we know as Thanksgiving favorites would be unknown to the Pilgrims. Many of the traditions we hold dear, including football and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade would be incomprehensible to those souls.
Most of all, as we feast and celebrate and cheer and make peruse the ads for a Black Friday shopping blitz, we forget what pilgrims are and were.
I remember my first idea of pilgrims dates to the second grade when we cut out and then colored with our trusty crayons a Pilgrim boy or girl. The Pilgrims in our school books wore black and white garments, sober and severe.
The word pilgrim means someone who travels far to reach a holy place, on a pilgrimage or in search of religious freedom. The Pilgrims we think about on Thanksgiving and seldom at any other season left England in search of religious freedom and respite from persecution. Some spent time in the Netherlands before embarking on a journey to the new and unknown world.
On that journey across the sea, they were not united. They were divided into Saints and Strangers. The Saints were the religious minded and the Strangers sought a better life, something that has remained constant with immigrants through the age. When land was sighted, the two groups created the Mayflower Compact and became one group of pilgrims.
Although that November day in 1621 may be the “first Thanksgiving,” it was not the only such observance in the early colonial period. It was not until 1817 that the first state, New York, set aside an official day of Thanksgiving. Although many other states followed suit, there was no national day of Thanksgiving until President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed such a day in 1863, during the Civil War. Each American president since Lincoln has issued a Presidential proclamation for Thanksgiving. It has become a national holiday that Americans of all creeds come together to celebrate.
But we remain pilgrims in many ways. In a nation now divided by various political viewpoints and diverse beliefs, we are still searching. In the 21st century, almost 400 years after those Pilgrims survived the first winter with a Thanksgiving feast, we still have saints and strangers. The labels have changed but Americans remain divided into conservative and liberal, religious and agnostic, wealthy and poor.
Like pilgrims, we’re still on a journey seeking many of the same things those Pilgrims sought – security, freedom to worship and live, for a better life.
As the nation marks the Thanksgiving holiday this week, let us join and forget our differences. As we dine on the favorite foods of our choice, let us all be Americans, united in the same spirit that brought the Pilgrims across a great ocean to find something better in the New World they lacked in the old, a nation for all, no matter what the differences, united and free.
-Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy is a writer, author, and reporter for The Neosho Daily News. She writes a weekly column, A Writer’s View, for the newspaper.