The first Thanksgiving was a celebration of the harvest. The Puritan settlers of Plymouth Plantation, Massachusetts, declared a day of thanks in the fall of 1621 because they had a very good year. So much so that they took several days off to celebrate. There are scant written records of that day, but from what we have, it’s apparent that they were thrilled to have plenty of crops, as well as Indian corn, water-fowl, turkey, local sea-food and whatever else nature could provide.

It was not without precedent. It was an old European tradition (an old human tradition) to celebrate the harvest. From the descriptions, they celebrated it in a way we in the South could respect. They prayed and then ate…and ate. They also hunted and practiced with their assault rifles…that is, muskets. (Just like us Southern Baptists!)

And they had their friends over; in fact, some 90 Wampanoag Indians with their Chief Massasoit, who brought the venison. They stayed three days, eating with their fair-skinned neighbors. The bounty was so great, in fact, that the Pilgrims wrote letters to relatives in England, describing it.

The Puritan Pilgrims understood the power of Thanksgiving. They understood that it was an important thing, a thing of perspective. Given that they were ‘right wing religious nuts with guns,’ they took seriously the injunction to give thanks to God for their bounty.

It’s all too easy for us to associate their Thanksgiving with ours. First of all, theirs was a very specific, intentional act. Ours is a national holiday, and has been since 1941. One that we easily take it for granted. In the big picture, our national bounty is so great that Thanksgiving can become just another holiday we struggle to understand, just another time of family stress when we try to do too much and launch ourselves into the frenzy of more mindless bounty at Christmas.

Keep in mind, however, that the Pilgrims lived on the very edge of a vast, unknown continent, thousands of miles across the Atlantic from the things they had always known. Their close neighbors were starvation and disease. One bad harvest could end the colony. One case of pneumonia, one infected wound or childbirth gone bad, and a new grave would be necessary.

There were no hospitals, and there were no shopping centers. An i-Phone search for ‘nearest Supermarket’ would have yielded ‘no search results.’ Starbucks? 350 years away. Luxury was what they created. At any moment, their native friends could have swept them from the earth. They faced potential catastrophe in America and oppression back home. Rock and a hard place, devil and the deep blue sea. But they were thankful.

We can learn so much. In the midst of our political and cultural battles, we should step back. Yes, there is hunger in America. But we have, without doubt, the tools and the bounty to solve it if we choose. Yes, there is political dissent; and then some. But despite the dramatic changes of the recent election, guess what didn’t happen? No bombs at polling places. No one rounded up and executed, body tossed in a ditch because of their political views or ethnicity. Yes, we have various divisions along religious, philosophical, and racial lines…even along lines of sexuality. But guess what? We don’t put our opponents into camps or prisons. (We do say mean things on social media, though.)

Some people understand. Those who survive terrible diseases, or those who know they won’t, but have to view life as a gift they have already opened and enjoyed as much as possible. Those whose families had trouble, but who came through intact. Those who endured war and came home to their loved ones. Those who served in places of hunger and sickness around the world, and saw what it was like to fly home to a city with food, shelter and clean water literally everywhere.

As we think about Thanksgiving this year, and begin to give thanks, we should pause to remember our bounty. Not the theoretical bounty of the ‘horn of plenty’ on our tables, but the bounty of life, every single day in our modern, richly endowed nation. For all it’s problems, it’s pretty amazing. And for the great gift of perspective. Because as the Pilgrims knew so well, true Thanksgiving is understood best at the junction of profound struggle with breathless gratitude.

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