Our contemporary idea of Thanksgiving Day is the amalgam of two accounts of the legendary 1621 gathering of Pilgrims and Wampanoags: William Bradford’s account of the early years of the settlement; and “Mourt’s Relation,” written by Edward Winslow, another early settler, with help, it is thought, from Bradford.
The two reports describe a brief season of plenty and three days of feasting following the first year of settlement, during which more than half of the 99 Pilgrims who had boarded the Mayflower at Plymouth, England, had died. Today, the holiday occupies a special place on the American calendar as a mostly nonsectarian, noncommercial holiday that brings families and strangers together for food and fellowship, but also for thanksgiving and expressions of gratitude. It’s a time of remembrance, a time to recall the struggles of New England’s first settlers and the sacrifices of the Native Americans who helped them survive, at great cost to their future. And it’s a time to meditate on the circumstances that brought our own families to these shores. Whether motivated by religion, politics, or a simple desire for a better life, whether they came here willingly or in bondage, whether our ancestors arrived recently or were among the first to settle here, it can be said that we are all the sons and daughters of migrants who hoped to build for us a better, safer, and freer life.