Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday, and if we didn’t have it because of 1621, Squanto, the Pilgrims, Sarah Buell Hale, and Abraham Lincoln, we’d have to (re)invent it. Because that fourth Thursday in November grounds us in a higher reality and builds bonds of community. Thanksgiving reminds each one of us that we are not uniquely responsible for our own accomplishments and successes. That we are helped along the way by others. That we are the humble recipients of many gifts freely given, and that we are connected in a great web of giving to each other. And all that inspires affection, awe, joy, and thankfulness.
To see how innately human this desire to express gratitude is, just watch this wondrous clip of a toddler hearing a violin for the first time. Then watch it again, and again, and again.
So much in our daily lives turns us in upon ourselves as each undertakes “the pursuit of happiness.” Ours is a seagull society – one in which “me-me-me” is the shrill cry heard from all sides. The iconic American essayists, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau urged their readers to “insist on yourself; never imitate” and be alert to “a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears.” Modern gurus encourage contemporary pilgrims to shun ties that bind and “seek your bliss.”
In rebuke, stands our annual day of Thanksgiving – which recalls both an extraordinary historical event of fellowship four hundred years ago and the deeply human need to give thanks. In that fall of 1621 English settlers and native people celebrated their shared endeavor of the harvest with some ninety Wampanoags and their King Massasoit joining Pilgrim settlers "that we might after a more special manner rejoice together."
On this four hundredth anniversary of the first Thanksgiving, our primary focus with elementary school children should not be on historical irony that breeds cynicism (“Wampanoags Regret Helping Pilgrims”), but on how each of us is lifted up, bound, and made part of something larger by giving thanks.
Mary Beth Klee
For more reflections on the importance of gratitude as an attitude, read Robert Emmons, the world’s leading expert on gratitude here.