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Giving Thanks in Divided Times by Amy McNeil

Do you know the true story of the first Thanksgiving? Most people think of Thanksgiving as a “feel good” holiday, but its history is mired in division and challenge. The very existence and endurance of this long standing tradition is proof positive that people can come together even in divided times.

As the story goes, a day of Thanksgiving was set aside in 1621, about a year after the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth Harbor, Massachusetts. After a successful harvest, the Pilgrims pledged thanks for a safe voyage and survival in a strange, new land. While they had experienced great loss, the Pilgrims had regained strength and learned to provide for themselves. The Wampanoag Indians joined the Pilgrims in their festival of celebration and gratitude. The time was filled with feasts, prayers, dances, shooting matches, wrestling, and other games.

Popular lore has largely clung to this harmonious image of the first Thanksgiving while ignoring the violent forces that would ultimately drive apart the descendants of the guests at that very feast. The indigenous people traded with the Pilgrims and taught them how to cultivate crops, but the interactions between these groups were significantly more troubled than many people realize.

It was only a brief moment in history that the interests of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag were aligned. Upon arrival, the Pilgrims had little food and no knowledge of the new land. The Wampanoag were vastly outnumbered and under attack from other tribes. The two groups worked out a mutually beneficial relationship in which the Pilgrims would exchange defense and weaponry for help from the Wampanoag with food. The Pilgrims were able to produce a bountiful supply of food that summer, and the Wampanoag were able to defend themselves against the Narragansett. The feast that took place was indeed one of thanks, but it more notably symbolized the rare, peaceful coexistence of the two groups. The next few decades would usher in a growing mistrust and disrespect between the two cultures, which would result in two centuries of brutal fighting and savagery.

The fabled story of Thanksgiving came mostly from President Abraham Lincoln. Thanksgiving didn’t become a national holiday until 1863 when Lincoln issued the Proclamation of Thanksgiving. It was at this time, in a country divided by the Civil War, that the unifying imagery of Pilgrims and Indians coming together to eat and celebrate was first introduced. During the Civil War, many families were divided, with some fighting brother against brother. Lincoln wanted to find a way to bring families back together, to get them to share a meal in solidarity and gratitude.

While Thanksgiving should be a time of unity and celebration, the truth is that we also live in divisive times. Many families don’t get along, and our country as a whole is more polarized than ever. We may find ourselves at odds with friends, family, or neighbors that we don’t agree with. As a result, we may be feeling cynical and have mixed feelings about the holidays. With that mindset, it’s hard for a holiday to live up to the idealistic image in our heads.

In this age, I think we can all take a lesson from Abraham Lincoln. Although I disagree with the idea of whitewashing the truth to create a sanitized version of history, Lincoln deserves credit for understanding the power of gratitude and fellowship. He knew that bringing people together to “break bread” and count blessings could bring healing, or at least establish truce. Regardless of how divided we may feel—from our family, friends, or fellow Americans—we can choose to set aside differences and celebrate shared blessings. The truth is that we usually have more things in common than things that set us apart. Some of us may look to politicians to unite the country, or perhaps we expect others to change their behavior in order to give us a sense of peace, but the change has to start with us.

Rather than focusing on differences or past grievances this Thanksgiving, choose instead to enjoy the present moment. The past is gone. It can’t be changed, forgotten, or erased. While things may seem crazy and chaotic right now, it’s possible that one day, you’ll actually miss these times. Watching some members of my family reach an age where they can no longer do all the things they used to drives this point home for me. You never know what will happen between this holiday and the next, which is why it’s so important to savor the time we have with our loved ones, whether we agree with them or not!

If we want to get along better with others, there’s no greater advice than the words of Gandhi, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” Once we’re willing to adjust our own attitude and behavior, we just may be surprised at how quickly a tense situation becomes more bearable…or perhaps even enjoyable!

Thanks to Amy for providing such an insightful, guest post. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. Join my mailing list, and get my free e-book, 17 Powerful Tips To Help You Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person. Happy Thanksgiving!

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Kate

    Love this! Thank you for sharing the story about the first Thanksgiving. They definitely taught a biased / inaccurate version of history back when I was in school. It wasn’t until college that I started to learn what really happened. I also really like your message about choosing to set aside differences and find common ground with people who disagree with us. This isn’t always easy to do, but why should we torture ourselves? People are going to have different views on things, and that’s okay. Let’s all just choose to have fun over the holidays. No drama!

  2. Sarah

    What great post! I must admit I didn’t know the history of the first Thanksgiving. The country is very polarized right now, and this upcoming year is going to be bruising! We don’t talk politics at the Thanksgiving table in my family. We also do our best to not dredge up old family baggage when we gather. Let’s just enjoy the holidays! If the Indians and Pilgrims could do it, and Civil War era Americans could do it, then so can we!

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