- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 23, 2008

Thanksgiving is nearly upon us. Amid the countless directions our thoughts go at this time, let me offer a few words about the origin of this holiday.

Some 20 years ago, I was given a book called “The Light and the Glory,” written by David Manuel and Peter Marshall, son of Christian author Catherine Marshall and Peter Marshall, the U.S. Senate chaplain for many years.

The book retells the story of the Pilgrims’ arrival in what is now Plymouth, Mass., in November 1620 in a way that suggests God’s hidden hand protected these devout people again and again from extinction.

For example, the Mayflower was blown off-course in its harrowing seven-week journey, and landed far north of the jurisdiction of the Virginia Company. This forced — and allowed — the 102 devout Pilgrims to create their own community.

The harbor they sailed into was perfect for a ship — in fact, it could (and would) handle ships twice the size of the Mayflower. The mainland had rich, fertile soil and there were four spring-fed creeks with the “sweetest water any of them had ever tasted,” the authors wrote.

Oddly, some 20 acres already had been cleared, although it appeared no one had planted for years.

“[T]hus arrived in a good harbor and brought safe to land,” William Bradford, one of the young leaders and future governor, wrote in his journal, “they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof. …”

But, as Bradford added, landing in a desolate wilderness meant there were “no friends to welcome them, nor inns to entertain or refresh their weatherbeaten bodies, no houses, or much less towns to repair to, to seek for succour.”

The winter of 1620-21 was horrific. The Pilgrims built shelters as fast as they could, but pneumonia soon began claiming lives. Forty-seven people perished, including 13 of the 18 wives.

Then on a sunny March day, an Indian walked up and said, “Welcome!” to the stunned settlers.

Samoset asked for beer — and settled for brandy — and explained how he had learned English from traveling with English sea captains, and why the Pilgrims had not been harmed by Indians. The land they were on once belonged to the fierce Patuxets, who killed any white people who came to their shores.

“But four years prior to the Pilgrims’ arrival, a mysterious plague had broken out among them, killing every man, woman and child. So complete was the devastation that the neighboring tribes had shunned the area, convinced that some supernatural spirit had destroyed the Patuxets,” Mr. Marshall and Mr. Manuel wrote. “Hence, the cleared land on which [the Pilgrims] had settled literally belonged to no one.”

The nearest Indian tribe was the Wampanoags, led by Massasoit. American history students likely will remember the rest of this story — Samoset introduced the Pilgrims to Squanto, who was living with the Wampanoags. Squanto was a surviving Patuxet who also knew English, and he taught the Pilgrims how to raise corn, catch eels and fish, plant pumpkins, refine maple syrup, pick medicinal herbs and harvest beaver pelts.

The first Thanksgiving dinner in October 1621 was bountiful the Wampanoags arrived with deer and turkeys and the two groups introduced hoecakes, vegetables, fruit pies and popcorn to each other. It led to 40 years of peace.

The Pilgrims then endured a second “starving time.” As the winter of 1621-22 began, 35 more Pilgrims were dropped off, empty handed, from a ship. As the Pilgrims’ food supplies dwindled, there came a time when everyone was rationed at five kernels of corn a day.

Miraculously, no one died of starvation that winter, and the faithful Pilgrims prospered in years to come. For a long time thereafter, whenever a feast was held, everyone was served a plate containing just five kernels of corn, “lest anyone should forget.”

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at [email protected]

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