NOVEMBER 21, 1999

Our American Thanksgiving is a celebration first observed by the Pilgrims and Wompanoags in Plymouth in 1621. It's a story quite familiar to us, particularly as close neighbors to that town. It's a story of a thanksgiving in gratitude for a bountiful harvest after the Pilgrims perilous crossing of the Atlantic and a bitter winter of deprivation and death. It was the celebration a bountiful harvest, made possible by the generous spirit of Squanto and others of the Wompanoag tribe, who taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn and do what it took to survive in the rugged New England climate. We know, as well, the history of peaceful coexistence between the Pilgrims and native peoples, which lasted at least one generation. This coexistence was brought forever and tragically to an end by King Philip's War in 1675.

The Pilgrims, whose favorite part of the Bible was the Psalms, may have read a psalm in thanksgiving for the earth's bounty at this first celebration in 1620. Psalm 65 reads (in part):

"Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion;
and to you shall vows be performed,
O you who answer prayer!
You visit the earth and water it,
you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
you provide the people with grain,
for so you have prepared it.
You water its furrows abundantly, settling its ridges,
softening it with showers, and blessing its growth.
You crown the year with your bounty;
your wagon tracks overflow with richness.
The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy."

This early Pilgrim celebration we have inherited is not connected today to any formal religion. Yet it was profoundly religious at the beginning and still bears relation to all the ancient human celebrations of bountiful harvests. In our blessings at the Thanksgiving table, we echo the praises of the Creative Spirit and prayers for future bounty of many cultures and times. The psalm I just read reminds us of the Jewish celebration of Sukkot, the harvest festival of booths, still celebrated in America and modern Israel. It also recalls the honoring of Demeter, the goddess of the grains, by ancient Greeks, and the honoring of Ceres, the Roman goddess of the corn. Nor is it unrelated to the religious customs of the Wompanoags and other New England Indian tribes.

We, too, in our times are grateful for a plentiful harvest and for the abundant riches of our land. And despite a less than perfect society, we can also be thankful for the blessings of democracy and for peace within our borders. We are reminded as well that we must strive for a more just and fair distribution of food and other riches within America and the rest of the world.

However, we must acknowledge, whether we feel comfortable with it or not, the protest of American Indians. There are many who feel they don't have much to celebrate on this day. Thanksgiving for them has become a symbol of something greater, the theft of their land by white settlers and the destruction of their traditional way of life over three centuries. It has been observed as a "Day of Mourning" in Plymouth since 1970, with mixed reactions from the residents and tourists of the town. I believe that there is validity to different viewpoints, that history is not a set of truths to be memorized, but is an ongoing process of interpretation and learning. There is not just one story to be told, but the unfolding many stories.

I must agree with Rev. Peter Gomes, himself a Plymouth resident, descended from many generations of New Englanders, a professor, author and minister at Harvard's Memorial Church. His opinion is that this is part of a necessary and irritating process that is redeeming history not only for American Indians but for the rest of us as well. He writes, "Now, I will be the last person to snatch one iota of praise and esteem from the Pilgrims of Plymouth, but I must hasten to say that Thanksgiving neither begins nor ends with them. Thanksgiving, if there is to be any at all, must begin and end with God." He continues in his somewhat caustic style, "Once we have been able to liberate Thanksgiving from the clutches of the Pilgrim mystique as well as from the countercultural clutches of the protesters, and once we have been liberated from the count-your-many-blessing-name-them-one-by-one routine, we will have made a significant step in that process of redeeming the familiar."

I pray that we may find a way acknowledge our long and complex history, and through debate, disagreement and dialogue realize history's true richness and depth. May we come to a place of forgiveness and reconciliation. Finally may we find a way to lift Thanksgiving above the clouds of history and celebrate the bountiful gifts of the Creator once again.

May we hear again the words of the psalm:
"The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy."


Peter J. Gomes, Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living. (New York: Avon Books, Inc., 1998), p. 232.