Giving Thanks for Freedom

ThanksgivingToday most Americans will gather for a celebration that has become an American tradition that is very much worthy of extension.

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Most of us experience more blessings than tribulation, especially in this country, and it is appropriate to give thanks for them (indeed, many traditions exhort us to give thanks for hard times as well), whether to God — as did the Pilgrims at Plimouth Plantation back in 1621 — or to whatever entity seems appropriate.

It’s interesting to remember, though, that however pleasant are the customs that have grown up around Thanksgiving, they bear little resemblance to what probably happened back in 1621.

Americans today typically gather considerable portions of their families together, eat turkey with all the trimmings, then, loaded with tryptophans, settle back to watch football or catch up on family news, and fall blissfully asleep. Some go for “gentle” Thanksgivings that don’t involve “murdering” turkeys. Some may go to church. Most spend at least a few moments thinking about the people and events for which they have reason to be thankful.

Food is important here, but the chief benefit is the gathering together.

Our modern customs were pioneered by one Sara Josepha Hale, editor of the popular Godey’s Lady’s Book in the 1850s. She filled her magazine with recipes and sometimes fanciful tales of the Pilgrims, and she convinced President Lincoln, in 1863, to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday.

The Massachusetts settlers almost certainly didn’t eat turkey or potatoes of any kind. They had cranberries but no sugar. Pumpkin pies were unlikely in the absence of butter and flour. But two accounts remain of a three-day gathering, attended by 52 settlers and some 90 Wampanoag Indians. It is unclear, but unlikely, if it became an annual celebration until many years later.

Beyond mere survival, there wasn’t much to be thankful for in 1621. Beyond the birds shot by a hunting party, food was hardly plentiful. And thereby hangs a cautionary tale about social organization.

When they first arrived in Massachusetts, the Pilgrims operated on a “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” basis. According to Gov. William Bradford’s later account, “all profits and benefits that are got by trade, working, fishing, or any other means” were placed in a common stock, from which each member of the colony could draw whatever he or she required. Not surprisingly, some colonists preferred to be layabouts.

After the scant harvest of 1622, wrote Bradford, “they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, to obtain a better crop.”

The remedy was to give each household a parcel of land and the freedom to raise as much as they wanted, keep what they needed, and trade it away as they saw fit.

Once that system was established, “any want or famine hath not been amongst them since this day.”

Whether you want to think on the shortcomings of a primitive form of socialism, give thanks for the blessings of your life or simply enjoy time with friends and family, we wish you and yours a cheerful and prosperous Thanksgiving.

Editor’s note: This editorial first appeared in the Orange County Register Nov. 23, 2006.

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