'Soften Us To Our Enemies'


‘Soften Us To Our Enemies’


     Thanksgiving is the most American of holidays, yet arguably the least commercialized. As it has always been, it is about giving thanks, and about the gathering of families:

          "Over the river and through the wood,

          To grandmother's house we go.

          The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh

          Through the white and drifted snow.

           ....'tis Thanksgiving Day."

                                               –Lydia Maria Child, 1844.

     Today the sleigh is a plane, train, bus or automobile. But Thanksgiving's carrying power 170 years after those words were written is proven by the fact that it is always the biggest traveling time of the year. Dispersed as they are, modern families crave a real meal, in real time, around a real table. Unlike, for example, "Presidents' Day," Thanksgiving is not primarily a concoction of the advertising industry. Its power derives from families themselves.

     Here, near the Pilgrims' first landing, Thanksgiving has an enhanced meaning. The first mention of the first Thanksgiving was by Pilgrim Governor Edward Winslow in a letter to England: "...many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king, Massassoit, with some 90 men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted."

     There the myth began. A myth is only a story that is passed down. It can be true, partly true, or false. Another account of the first Thanksgiving notes a feast but doesn't mention Indians. We are content to leave the facts of the matter to historians.

     But why has the Thanksgiving myth become so powerful? That answer is easy. The Pilgrims were from the poorer parts of England. They were less educated and less well-off than the East Anglian Puritans who settled Boston 10 years later. They forsook everything for a treacherous journey to a place where they could openly practice their religion. Their journey is taken as the beginning of the movement for American independence, and their story became a powerful inspiration to the nation of emigrants that emerged in 1776.

     It still is. Visitors to Plymouth's historic sites include many Africans, Asians and Spanish-speakers who have been denied religious liberty in the countries they came from. Their personal pilgrimages, and their thanksgiving for America, parallel those of the Pilgrims.

     Yet among native-born Americans there are many who are too sophisticated for old myths. For some this may be no more than a wish to tell history more accurately about the fellow human beings living on the New England coast when the Pilgrims arrived. But others want to portray the America the Pilgrims helped to start not as humanity's beacon, but rather as its 400-year scourge.
     This must be refuted. When honestly exposed, the truth about the Pilgrims' failings is to be accepted. But at Thanksgiving we prefer to quote from the uplifting Pilgrim prayer attributed to the second or third generation of Winslows, who settled in Marshfield:

     "We thank Thee for this place in which we dwell; for the love that unites us; for the peace accorded us this day; for the hope with which we expect the morrow; for the health, the work, the food, and the bright skies that make our lives delightful. 

     "Give us grace and strength to forbear and to persevere. Give us courage and gaiety and the quiet mind. Spare us to our friends, soften us to our enemies. Bless us, if it may be, in all our innocent endeavours. If it may not be, give us strength to encounter that which is to come, that we be brave in peril, constant in tribulation, temperate in wrath, and in all changes of fortune, and down to the gates of death, loyal and loving to one another."

                                             –D.A. Mittell, Jr.


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