The "First" Thanksgiving

Tue, 11/26/2019 - 11:05am -- Clergy

Thanks to Edward Winslow (1595-1655), the only member of the Plymouth Plantation community of whom we have a picture, we can read an eyewitness account of the "Dissenter" Thanksgiving which became the model for the American celebration of Thanksgiving. In fact, there were many Thanksgiving celebrations in Colonial America, some earlier than the 1621 Massachusetts event. However, it was not until the time of the Civil War that Thanksgiving became an official Federal holiday in the United States and still later, officially designated as the fourth Thursday of November (not the date of the Plymouth feast, which probably occurred in September 1621.

In any event, Thanksgiving has become a quintessential American holiday. Although some of the more Orthodox sects in the Jewish community do not celebrate Thanksgiving, the vast majority of American Jews embrace it as a model of ecumenical American spirituality and as fully compatible with the Jewish tradition. At your Thanksgiving meals, I urge you to share your thoughts with one another about the blessings of life for which you are most grateful and add a "HaMotzi" before eating in accordance with our own heritage.

Here is an excerpt of Winslow's gracious (if not idealized) account (December 11, 1621) of the "First" Thanksgiving:

"... in the short time we few have been here, we have built seven dwelling houses, four buildings for the use of the plantation, and have made preparation for several others. We sowed last spring some twenty acres of Indian corn and some six acres of barley and peas. According to the manner of the Indians, we fertilized our ground with herrings, or rather shads, which we have in great abundance and catch with great ease near our homes. Our corn did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn and our barley was fairly good, but our peas were not worth gathering. We feared that they were sown too late. They came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom.

Our harvest being collected our governor sent four men fowling together so we might rejoice together in a more special way after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. In just one day, the hunters killed as much fowl as if their hunting party had been larger. The fowl fed the company almost a week at which time, among other recreations, we drilled with our firearms. Many of the Indians joined us including Massasoit, the greatest king, and some ninety of his men. We all entertained and feasted together for three days. The Indians went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, the captain, and others. And although it is not always as plentiful as it was at that time, yet by the goodness of God we are so far from want that we often wish you could partake of our plenty.

We have found the Indians very faithful in their covenant of peace with us and very loving and ready to please us. We often visit them, and they come to us. Some of us have explored fifty miles into the land with them. The occasions and relations of them you shall understand by our general and more full declaration of such things as are worth noting [in A Relation]. Yea, it has pleased God to instill in the Indians a fear of us and love unto us so that not only their greatest king, Massasoit, but also all the princes and peoples round about us have visited us.…There is now great peace among the Indians themselves which was not the case formerly, neither would have been but for us, and we for our part walk as peaceably and safely in the wood as on the highways in England. We entertain the Indians familiarly in our houses and they are friendly to us bestowing their venison as gifts..."

If only such peaceful relations would have endured. Meanwhile, may we, too, share our blessings in peace and with gratitude with one another and with all people.

Happy Thanksgiving and Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D.