A Story Four Centuries Old
You heard the Thanksgiving story from the time you were five-years-old sitting around the Kindergarten table coloring your construction paper headdresses and Pilgrim hats.
You listened to the tale as you glued the feathers onto the turkey you made by tracing your handprint. "What a feast the Pilgrims created to celebrate their survival after landing at Plymouth Rock!" you thought.
The story goes that the Pilgrims organized a big party with lots of food and shared it with the Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans.
We love that story because it's about people gathering together to eat good food, play games, connect with each other, and take a day off from the daily struggles of survival. It's a story of two cultures who met and lived peacefully together for fifty years.
(It's a different story altogether once greed and power made us start stealing land and killing the very people who had helped us most, but for now, let's concentrate on the good chapter of the story.)
The First Thanksgiving and The Current Thanksgiving
The gathering of the Plymouth colonists in November of 1621 must have been a fascinating affair. The colonists were malnourished, uncertain, and sad. Of the 102 passengers, only half had survived. They were far from home, uncertain, sad, and struggling, yet still, they celebrated with The Wampanoag Indian tribe - strangers who had become friends.
We don't concentrate as much as we should on the contribution of the Wampanoag Tribe of Native Americans to the survival of those early colonists. In reality, Thanksgiving should be a celebration of Squanto, the Indian who spoke English. Heroic, beleaguered Squanto, a Patuxet Indian who spoke English because he'd been kidnapped, not once, but twice by English sea captains. As an old man, Squanto went to live with the Wampanoags because when he finally returned to America after his kidnappings, his whole Patuxet tribe had died from smallpox.
Squanto must have had a generous, compassionate spirit to befriend this rag-tag group of colonists and teach them to get sap out of maple trees and plant crops. He showed them how to fish and what plants to avoid eating or touching.
The Wampanoag Indians helped the English settlers because Squanto had acted as a liaison between William Bradford, the governor of the newly formed colony, and Massasoit, the chief of the Wampanoag tribe,
On that first Thanksgiving, the two peoples gathered together. Massasoit and ninety of his tribe brought five deer to add to the feast the colonists had prepared from fish and fowl.
Despite language barriers and different backgrounds, people overcame their difficulties for a few days to gather together and have fun.
How Our Hearts Hurt
In this COVID-era when so many are struggling to eat, when hard-workers have lost their jobs, their businesses, or a loved one, we feel again the epic story of surviving despite difficulties. We need the support of others, and look forward to gathering together to commiserate, commune, and indulge. But this year, it can't happen, and our hearts hurt.
For twenty years, my family has gathered at my sister and brother-in-law's house. Since the death of my brother-in-law's parents, his entire family - brothers, spouses, children, and grandchildren have been part of the celebration. My two sisters and me, with all our extended clan, meet up there, too.
Last year, 54 people ate together in my sister's home. Rented chairs and tables formed a long t-shaped configuration with a separate kids' table are crammed to the side. The age range has varied from eighty-seven years to one-month. An annual touch football game, "The Turkey Bowl," pits one family against the other in a friendly but fierce competition.
The Best Day of the Year
Noisy, nutty, and wonderful. Without a doubt, Thanksgiving is one of the best days of the year for my family.
I don't know how many families have more than fifty members from four states at their annual Thanksgiving feast, but it's a beautiful tradition that has allowed us to form strong bonds with my brother-in-law's whole family. Weddings, births, graduations, retirements, deaths. We've been through them all together. This year, we would remember the life of my brother-in-law's sister-in-law who died earlier this year after an eight-year battle with cancer.
This year, we can't "gather together to ask the Lord's blessing." Our family canceled Thanksgiving, and I'm sad.
Alternatives to Cancelling a Celebration?
You may think we're being over-cautious. You may be able to celebrate and still be safe during a pandemic. Many people are offering alternative solutions to big gatherings.
- We could eat outside, but protecting more than 50 people from the elements of what could be a blustery Midwestern day in November isn't a viable option.
- We could opt to take everybody's temperature before they arrive, but let's face it. If you've piled all your kids in a car and driven several hours, how would you feel if you got turned away at the door because someone's temp is elevated? What family member would want the job of saying, "No, you have to turn around and go home."
- We could delegate the serving of the meal to just one or two people, but again, it's not a feasible solution when you're feeding such a large group. Besides, part of the camaraderie is from the communal prepping, serving, and cleaning required with a big group meal.
- Could we require a COVID test for everyone before they arrive? Maybe, but as all the experts warn, while tests are a great thing, they are NOT guaranteed. You could test negative today and three days from now, test positive. You could be exposed after you took the test.
- According to one poll, 40% of the population will celebrate Thanksgiving virtually this year. Our family among them. It won't be the same. It will be different.
Can you be sad and happy at the same time?
Yes, you've heard it a billion times. "This year is different." I'm sad that we won't have a joint-family Thanksgiving gathering in a house in Indiana bursting with cousins, in-laws, kids and kin from far and near, but I'm also happy that our family cares about each other so much.
We may be risk-takers in lots of ways, but not with our lives.
No risk is worth spreading an invisible infection to the people we love the most.
We're a resilient, resourceful family who believes that Thanksgiving will come again next year. We're sad now, but we'll celebrate double in 2021, happy that our family members are still occupying their seats at the table. We'll be ecstatic that - like the remaining Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock - we survived to celebrate again.