Lessons from Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving and Native American Heritage Day

There is something about raising children that broadens and sharpens my focus on celebration and tradition. It may be their exuberance. It may be their curiosity. Whatever it is, I can safely say my understanding and appreciation of Thanksgiving has grown.

For most of my life, I carried with me the shards of a public school educational approach to Thanksgiving. In grade school, there were Pilgrims and Indians and the feast they shared following a rough year. College squashed any reverence for the ideas associated with those pilgrims. But as my children have moved through the early elementary school grades, to explain the meaning of the day  I have both learned more about the story and why it really is a history worth celebrating.

I observe on Google Calendar “Native American Heritage Day” on the day following Thanksgiving. Last year, I believe the day following Thanksgiving was marked by Google as “Black Friday.” Times change. With November standing as Native American Heritage Month, it is a valuable time to consider what we really know about that Thanksgiving feast, three hundred and ninety-nine years ago.

Photo by Meritt Thomas on Unsplash

The Story of Thanksgiving

The pilgrims were religious refugees and adventurers, seeking a new life where they could practice their faith apart from government intervention or restriction. The journey was perilous. I learned this from “This Is America Charlie Brown” an excellent educational resource. It is amazing to learn what they suffered, even from so simple a telling, and how all the children survived, even as many adults died before building and living in a new American settlement.

It was through the intervention of Squanto, who spoke English, that the pilgrims were able to successfully grow the crops whose yield would warrant the celebration of that first Thanksgiving. Cordial relations for one generation made it possible.

Those relationships deteriorated, but a generation is not a significant length of time. Relationships are made first between individuals. That they were not maintained does not deny the goodness of the original relationship between these parties. That a child grows up and divorces does not negate the good of the seemingly happy marriage in which that child was raised.

Beyond Charlie Brown, at home we read about Squanto. We read books about the pilgrims. We read books about the Mayflower. We discuss parts of the world that right now experience religious persecution.

I created coloring pages to illustrate these points: the story of Thanksgiving, the tradition of eating and pardoning Turkey, the Jewish roots of a festival to give thanks.

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What difference does it make now?

By these practices, history becomes more than just a vague memory of puffy figurines for the 1980s dining table. We connect to our heritage. We connect to the heritages that heritage draws from to begin with. More than sentiment, we can learn something from this holiday that we need very badly today.

  • Help one another.
  • Reach out to those in need, even when they are very different, even if you might have a good reason to hold no trust based on previous encounters with others like them.
  • Know that sharing a meal is a human tradition, going beyond Hallmark and Betty Crocker and mass-market commercialism. There is a reason we break bead together.
  • Some hard things are worth the effort to do them. There was something worth fighting for, and not with violence, not with complaining, but by finding a way to make it possible.

The pilgrims traveled with hope. Others traveled with greed. Others traveled intent in acquiring whatever they could, whatever the cost. But this group, this set of real people who actually lived, were in need, strangers helped them, and they survived.

We need this example and these lessons. Even the imperfect are capable of virtue. Even the imperfect can be set before us as examples of a life well-lived.

So whether you are following Public Health orders to the letter of the law, whether your Thanksgiving meal will be take-out through the Hughson Community Thanksgiving Dinner, or whether you are going all out with a traditional menu at home, let it be deep and broad in its meaning, and let it take these lessons to heart.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

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