Happy Thanksgiving! Now mixed into the holiday shopping season including stores opening now in the early evening of what used to be a day of rest and family it’s easy to lose the idea presented by the memorial feast carried on in the United States. As I considered relaying my well wishes to new colleagues outside of the U.S. it occurred to me to think of how to explain it, should an explanation be necessary. Also, how do I talk with my grandkids about it? And what could it mean to others who might have forgotten or never learned of the reason for taking a day to reflect and be grateful for those things we have in our lives? Here are some of my thoughts.
Of course it begins with a religious and political historical consideration. Seventeenth century Europe is involved in segregating itself from the remnants of the Holy Roman Empire. France, Spain, Prussia, England, Scotland, Italy were all working out who is in authority over whom. Religion IS politics. King James of England has a commission of bishops and scholars retranslating the Christian Bible and determining a canon for it according to the relatively young Church of England. Spain is still a great sea power in spite of the sinking of its armada some years earlier. The Americas are the wilderness over the ocean fit for adventurers and explorers. A small group of religious separatists had already left England because of what they called irreconcilable religious differences with the King’s Church and moved to Holland. Here they sought a place for a new start for their lives and their families. They contracted with investors in England and Holland to begin a new colony in that wilderness across the sea. Their efforts landed them at Plymouth Rock in November of sixteen-twenty where they hacked out an existence that cost more than half of them their lives over the next winter. Fortunately they met and were accepted by a local tribe of Native that helped them through the summer, introduced them to the cultivation of corn and other North American crops. By the end of the year they had a bountiful harvest, better housing, and a stronger community than when they arrived. For this they were grateful, and the legend of their harvest celebration has become the foundation for our feast day. It’s a nice story when one glosses over the hardships they suffered, in Europe, at sea, and in this new wilderness land. Perhaps if we reflect on the tenuous foothold we humans now hold in space we can better appreciate the peril these Pilgrim separatists ventured into.
Today, orbiting generally two-hundred miles above the earth is a football field sized body of human making. It is constructed of mostly aviation grade aluminum and maintained by six highly trained astronauts. It has taken humanity since the nineteen sixties to accomplish such a feat, to live in such a hostile environment. Two hundred miles is only the distance from the Ohio River in Cincinnati to Lake Erie in Toledo Ohio, a short drive of a few hours. Yet is such a distance vertical from the surface of our world we leave the atmosphere that protects us from the sun and gives us the air and water we need to survive, without which we would live only a few minutes in great agony. Yet men and women venture there to live and work. They ride great machines called rockets that, should any one of a thousand parts fail, would explode and remove them from our plain of existence in that moment. They fly to another machine which, if penetrated by something as small as a marble, would blow free of the oxygen and atmosphere that allows them to survive. It is a tenuous existence at best. Much the same was the venture of the Pilgrims. And like our space programs around the world, the Pilgrims lost loved ones and comrades to the elements of the New World. Some of our modern space explorers did reflect similarly to my meager attempt to do so here.
During Apollo Eight’s journey to the Moon and back in December of nineteen-sixty-eight the spacecraft went around the Moon on Christmas Eve. The astronauts, viewing for the first time an ‘earth rise’, referred to the Christian Bible King James had commissioned nearly four centuries earlier. They read the first ten verses of that story, the Judeo-Christian story of the birth of the world they were observing, and they did so during a live broadcast that went around our world as both a prayer and in gratitude. Our world’s technology is different than it was in nineteen-sixty-eight. Our view of history is different than then, and very different from that of the Pilgrims’ in sixteen-twenty. Today we can see around the world in a moment the war, strife, hunger, and turmoil the hatred of humankind promotes. Yet, on this day, on Thanksgiving Day, in the United States, we created one day to stop and share, no matter our religion or our economic status, to be grateful for what we have, and to hope that all may one day share in the bounty of that which this world has to offer. Actions begin with thoughts and ideals. Before our ideal becomes tarnished too much, I hope you’ll pause with us and be as grateful for that same bounty we have as those Pilgrim pioneers that left their civilized world for the wilderness and for hope.