Considering the first Thanksgiving of American myth featured people from different cultures sitting down to offer thanks for survival in an often-harsh land, it is safe to assume the people breaking bread together had many differences. Still, they ate and shared their bounty.
We are speaking of the celebration at the Plymouth Plantation in the 1600s — a three-day feast that likely took place in 1621 between late September and mid-November to mark the harvest. We know its details because of a letter written in December 1621 by Edward Winslow, although historians continue to debate what happened.
That meal has become enshrined in our national memory, with little attention to the feelings of the Wampanoag and other Natives whose land this was. Learning about that shared meal eventually led to the formal establishment of Thanksgiving as a national holiday on the last Thursday of November by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Even before the holiday was declared, however, Americans celebrated.
That included George Washington, who said this in his Thanksgiving proclamation of 1789, calling it necessary for nations to give thanks to the Almighty: “… therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be — That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks.”
Of that first Thanksgiving, we do know the people who sat to eat, played games and gave thanks had little in common — the settlers from England and those whose land it was.
That’s similar to Thanksgivings in many homes in this year of 2021, where Americans are divided by politics, cultural practices and views on vaccinations or mask-wearing. Yet, if we love our friends and family, surely people of different perspectives and beliefs can come together, if only for one meal.
There’s no need to limit Thanksgiving meals only to those with whom we agree or whose political beliefs we share. Just as people put their cellphones away before dinner, set discussions of politics, religion or pandemic aside — focus on family stories or shared memories.
See one another as people, not members of political parties or ideologies. Granted, that’s difficult given the events of the last five years, but building bridges can bring this nation back to a place of unity. When individuals with differences but respect meet, they can begin working on solving common problems. Friendships can be formed during potato peeling, setting the table and dishwashing. Memories are made, the kind to knit together people of varied perspectives and backgrounds.
Thanksgiving is a time for food, family and friends — maybe a football game in the yard or on the television. This year, with so much pain for so many, our thanks will be heartfelt. We need each other, whatever our beliefs, and we need to focus on what we have in common. That’s the gift of Thanksgiving: A holiday to be grateful, to share and to celebrate our connections.