Thanksgiving horn of plenty

Historically, we’ve accept­ed a very white­washed ver­sion of what hap­pened in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621. The sto­ry we were told as chil­dren was that the friend­ly local Wampanoag tribe swooped in to teach the strug­gling pil­grims how to sur­vive in the New World, cul­mi­nat­ing in a three-day feast of thanksgiving.

I bet most of us were actors in this very play in kinder­garten, wear­ing a con­struc­tion-paper head­band with attached feath­ers if we were play­ing the kind­ly Native American or a black con­struc­tion-paper cylin­der with a yel­low buck­le on the front to sig­ni­fy that we were a tired and over­whelmed pil­grim. Here is how you plant corn using a fish! The racial­ly insen­si­tive play cul­mi­nat­ed in the entire cast sit­ting at a table laden with plas­tic food, hold­ing hands, and singing the Shaker song ‘Tis a Gift To Be Simple.

In real­i­ty, Native Americans suf­fered great­ly with the arrival of the colonists. In the cen­turies that fol­lowed that first jovial feast, the set­tlers drove the Native Americans from their land, slaugh­tered many, and vir­tu­al­ly exter­mi­nat­ed those left through sick­ness and dis­ease. To this day, many Native Americans argue that the hol­i­day cel­e­brates the geno­cide of its peo­ple and, since 1970, offi­cial­ly rec­og­nize the fourth Thursday in November as a Day of Mourning. 

But at its core, the day was – and is – intend­ed to cel­e­brate immi­grants and friend­ship, a day ask­ing us to hon­or our boun­ti­ful bless­ings. It is a reli­gious cel­e­bra­tion for some and a sec­u­lar obser­vance for oth­ers. While Christmas can often seem like a shal­low show of mate­r­i­al excess, Thanksgiving usu­al­ly feels a bit more emo­tion­al­ly nour­ish­ing, focused more on what we have rather than what we want

But what to do when feel­ing grate­ful feels like a chal­lenge? The whole world is cur­rent­ly strug­gling with health, finan­cial, and emo­tion­al con­cerns. It’s hard to see beau­ty and joy when we’re ter­ri­fied and worried.

How do we give thanks when a loved one is on a ven­ti­la­tor, fight­ing for their very life?

How do we give thanks when we’ve lost our jobs?

How do we give thanks when there are chil­dren who are hun­gry, abused, neglect­ed, anx­ious, or scared?

How do we give thanks when the hur­ri­canes and wild­fires are destroy­ing our homes? 

How do we give thanks when we are wor­ried about our fun­da­men­tal rights being stripped from us?

How do we give thanks when we do not – can­not – know what the future holds?

We give thanks any­way. Because that’s the real para­ble of Plymouth.

In the attempt to remem­ber the exploita­tion of the ear­ly Native Americans, it’s easy to for­get that those pil­grims weren’t liv­ing their best lives either. Those coura­geous set­tlers left every­one and every­thing they knew so that they could wor­ship a God of their understanding. 

It took over two months of sick­ness, star­va­tion, and storm for the Mayflower to fer­ry 102 intre­pid voy­agers across the Atlantic. 

That first ter­ri­ble win­ter, near­ly half of those pil­grims died from mal­nu­tri­tion, dis­ease, and lack of shel­ter. Of the 18 mar­ried, female pil­grims, 13 died because they gave what lit­tle food they had to their chil­dren. It is an extreme under­state­ment to say that it was a tru­ly hard year. Yet in spite of those incred­i­ble hard­ships, they set aside time to be grate­ful. They cel­e­brat­ed in that moment what was right instead of focus­ing on what was wrong.

We can empathize for sure. Many of us are grap­pling with what a tru­ly hard year feels like.  As we look around our own table this year, there are cer­tain to be emp­ty seats. Kentucky has now lost over 10,000 souls to covid. Over 765,000 are dead in our nation as of this writ­ing. The pil­grims had lots of emp­ty seats too, but they chose instead to be grate­ful for the peo­ple who were there. 

Maybe you’re skip­ping the big feast because your uncle still isn’t vac­ci­nat­ed. Maybe you’re cel­e­brat­ing because you can actu­al­ly gath­er again after a year off. Thanksgiving might feel dif­fer­ent this year, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take time to think about what is still right in our lives.

The word thanks comes from the Latin word tongēre, mean­ing “to think.” It’s a verb, an inten­tion­al action. We are being asked to think and give thanks, to acknowl­edge what we have instead of com­plain­ing about what we don’t.

  • Erin Skinner Smith

    Erin Skinner Smith wants every­one to slow down, eat real food, move their bod­ies, go out­side, and hit the pil­low a lit­tle ear­li­er for a more pur­pose­ful exis­tence. She is a pub­lished writer, yoga teacher, and mind­ful­ness coach. When she’s not stand­ing on her head or typ­ing on her trusty lap­top, you’ll find her read­ing, play­ing gui­tar, enjoy­ing a glass of bour­bon, or snug­gling on the couch with her peo­ple and pets. Send her a dig­i­tal high five at