With the bleakness that permeates all around us as we enter the holiday season of 2020, I think that this a good time to rediscover the lost history of the first Thanksgiving in America. It took place near Jamestown, Virginia, on the heels of the almost unimaginable period of privation, hunger, and plague known as “The Starving Time”. When the ships arrived, they found only 60 of the original 500 settlers still alive. The sailors described them as “living skeletons”. Some had resorted to cannibalism, others simply dug their own graves and lay down in them to wait for death. But it was here, in a strange and hostile land, against the backdrop of enormous human suffering, facing an uncertain and hard future, that these men knelt in the Virginia dirt to pray.
As a modern holiday, Thanksgiving has come to be associated with consumption and materialism, a gluttonous prelude to the Black Friday sales that now begin on Thursday. An association reinforced by the national mythos being revised after the Civil War to write the Southern states out of the history books. The day of prayer celebrated in Jamestown now replaced with the romanticized story of Pilgrims in Massachusetts having a multicultural feast with BIPOC natives.
Normally this mythos serves it’s purpose well enough. But after what we’ve been through this year, it all rings so hollow. A deadly plague and a deadly response have taken loved ones from many of us. We’ve just seen the largest transfer of wealth from the working and middle-classes to the rich in world history in the destructive wake of lockdowns and riots. Countless people have been plunged into poverty. The young are becoming depressed and suicidal. Despair is all around. What is there to be thankful for?
It’s a question I’ve grappled with, along with a certain sense of dread as the holidays approach. This will be my family’s first Thanksgiving since Mom passed. She was the force behind all our celebrations, the prime mover of our home life. It was her warmth and spirit that made the day what it should be. A wonderful cook – she never needed a recipe book, just somehow knew instinctively how to make it all come out perfectly. She was the one who made Thanksgiving what it always was for us. Not every Thanksgiving past happened in a time of abundance and prosperity. The lean times were no stranger to my family. But through it all, Mom always had an attitude of thankfulness to God, for giving us life, salvation, and each other. And it was in reminiscing about this that I found the answer to that despairing question that the enemy whispered in my ear, “What is there to be thankful for?” It turns out, I have the most to be thankful for this year than I ever have. Thankfulness for the life of my mother, for the life that she gave me, for our time we were given together, for our bond that transcends mortality, and that by faith in Christ we will be reunited soon, just beyond the horizon.
This Thanksgiving, like the first all those years ago in Virginia, will take place against a backdrop of privation and suffering, in the face of an uncertain and ominous future. But our lives are in God’s hands, and by faith he will see through. In the words of that great old hymn “Some through the water, some through the flood, some through the fire, but all through the blood. Some through great sorrow, but God gives a song, in the night season, and all the day long.” As in the days when the colonists gave thanks for their safety, for the health of their children, for the love which bound their families together, and for the faith which united them with God, let us give thanks.