No matter where you are in the world, giving thanks opens a doorway to a happy life. In the United States, we celebrate thanksgiving as a nation but few of us remember the true sacrifice of the Pilgrims who came to America for religious freedom. I shared this history with my children as they were growing up and would place “five kernels of corn” on each plate to remember the first pilgrims.
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The History of Thanksgiving
Most of us have a vague notion that this holiday began when the Pilgrims invited their Indian neighbors to dinner to thank God for his provisions. But there really is much more to the story.
The Pilgrims made a 66 day journey across the North Atlantic Ocean. One Hundred and two made the voyage in a ship the size of a modern day volleyball court. They encountered the full gall of the winter storms of 1620 that plunged the pilgrims into prolonged seasickness. They were hated by the sailors on the ship who called them “psalm-singing puke-stockings”. Several of the crew threatened to throw them over the side of ship and feed them to the fish.
During one violent storm, the crossbeam supporting the mainmast cracked. The crew crowded below deck with the screaming children, who were frightened by the loud noise. All were concerned. What could they do to save the ship? The Pilgrims responded in the only way they knew how. They prayed, “Yet Lord, thou canst save!”
In answer to their prayer, the Lord reminded Elder Brewster of the iron screw of his printing press. In desperation, they brought in the press, cranked it up to meet the cross beam and raised it up to its original position. Even the sailors joined the Pilgrims as they shouted praise to God. He had saved each one from the terrors of shipwreck. They sailed the rest of the way across the Atlantic with a Printing Press holding the ship together.
The joy and expectation that must have filled every heart when at last the words “Land ho” were shouted. The land they saw was to become “New England”. It was out of the jurisdiction of the Virginia Company so they needed some law to govern their settlement. They drafted a simple covenant which said: “…Having undertaken, for the glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and honor of our King and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation…”
The Pilgrims Find Safe Harbor
When the Pilgrims arrived in the safe harbor they fell on their knees on the sands of Cape Cod thanking God for his blessing. Bradford later was astonished at “this poor people’s present condition… no friends to welcome them, nor inns to entertain or refresh their weather beaten bodies, no houses, or much less towns to repair to…”
The pilgrims could rely only on God. They could not take solace in any other thing. “If they looked behind them, there was the mighty ocean which they had passed, and was now as a main bar and gulf to separate them from all the civil parts of the world…What could now sustain them but the Spirit of God and His grace.”
God used these trials to make the hearts of the pilgrims triumphant. “God sifted a whole nation, that He might send choice grain into this wilderness.” More than half of them died the first winter which was later called the “starving time.” They buried the dead at night so that the Indians would not know how few their number was becoming.
God Sent Help to the Pilgrims
In the Spring of 1621, the cry went up “Indian coming!” Everyone was surprised to see one bold Indian marching down the center of the street with nothing on except a loin cloth. In perfect English the Indian said “Welcome.” Then he looked at the stunned faces of the Pilgrims and said “Do you have any beer?” The Indian’s name was Samoset. He had learned English from traveling with an English sea captain.
Samoset befriended the pilgrims and introduced them to Squanto. Squanto had been kidnapped and taken to England where he lived for many years. He finally found a way back to his homeland, only to find all of his family dead and his home deserted. Squanto found a new purpose for life by helping the Pilgrims. He knew that they would starve to death if they didn’t learn how to live off the land. He showed them how to grow corn, catch fish and hunt.
The fall harvest was a success. The Pilgrims were thankful to God for the abundance of His hand of provision. With Squanto as their interpreter, they invited the local Indian chief Massasoit to come to a day of public Thanksgiving. The chief arrived a day early with ninety Indians! The Pilgrims were relieved when the Indians did not come empty handed. They brought with them dressed dear and wild turkeys. They also showed the women how to roast corn kernels until they popped. The popcorn was a favorite treat.
This first thanksgiving lasted three days. The Indians and Pilgrims competed in shooting contests between meals. The friendship and relationship that was built resulted in a treaty of peace that lasted forty years.
Five Kernels of Corn
Later that fall new settlers arrived by ship. Everyone was filled with joy at their coming. But when they realized it was almost winter and the settlers had come with no extra provisions, they knew something must be done to help them make it through the entire winter. The pilgrims were each rationed 5 kernels of corn per day. They prayed for God’s mercy and received His sustenance. Not one of them died of starvation that winter.
In April of 1623, the Pilgrims worked with new vigor planting corn. They knew they needed an abundant harvest. But after planting the seed, they faced a terrible drought. Once again the pilgrims prayed. Edward Winslow recounts “…O the mercy of God, who was as ready to hear, as we were to ask.” The very next morning, God gave a gentle shower of rain.
This answer to prayer had a significant impact on the Indians. They had tried many incantations and rain dances without positive effect. They were impressed with the goodness of the pilgrims’ God.
The abundance of the harvest that year yielded the pilgrims a surplus of corn. They invited the Indians to a second Day of Thanksgiving. Massasoit was again invited and this time he came with 120 braves. The first course was served . An empty plate was set before each person with five kernels of corn on it. No one would ever forget to thank God for His abundant provision.
A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving
Did you grow up watching this classic Charlie Brown Thanksgiving? You are probably more likely to remember Charlie Brown’s Thanksgiving than to know the history of Thanksgiving.
Create a Wonderful Thanksgiving for your family!
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One thought on “Happy Thanksgiving”
Thanksgiving is such a wonderful reminder of the goodness of God. I love being able to celebrate with family. There is such a sweetness about the holiday season. It makes me even more thankful for the first pilgrims who persevered to found a new land with religious freedom.