Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday. No other people or nation has it. If you happen to be traveling abroad on the third Thursday in November, you always sense a little void. The void remains, no matter how accommodating and gracious your hosts may be.
Thanksgiving is unique not just because it’s our own. It’s also unique in kind.
It’s not a religious holiday; it’s completely secular. It doesn’t commemorate the birth or achievements of any particular notable. Unlike many holidays abroad, it doesn’t remind us of a costly battle or the beginning or end of some military or political upheaval. Unlike Guy Fawkes Day in Britain, it doesn’t recall the survival of a symbol of democracy (the Parliament building) in the face of a dastardly plot. All it commemorates is the bounty bestowed by a new land and the cooperation of two radically different cultures.
The native people we misnamed “Indians” were an integral part of our first Thanksgiving. They were there at the feast. They participated in the festivities and the speechmaking. Most of all, they gave us the seeds and shared the information on native agriculture that made the bounty of that first Thanksgiving possible.
Without the Indians’ help, some historians believe, the Pilgrims might not have survived. They were long on hope and religious zeal and short on practical skills for living in their harsh new wilderness. The Indians supplied the skills.
Agriculture was not all we learned from them. Indians also gave us aspects of our own culture that we still practice today. If you’ve ever observed a meeting of the British House of Commons on TV, you might have been surprised at how participants boo and cheer each other and occasionally shout each other down. Our practice in Congress is different: members speak in turn, with others waiting in mostly respectful silence. We adopted that practice after observing the Iroquois’ tribal councils, which seemed so much more civilized.
Our first Thanksgiving came in 1621, long before we were an independent nation. Its lessons are approaching four centuries old. But they are still as powerful today as they were when Governor Bradford thanked God for nature’s bounty and the Indians’ friendly help.
Today we use more sophisticated language. We speak of the “environment” or “ecology” rather than just the “land.” We worry about the “technology” and “values” of foreign cultures and are suspicious of those that differ from our own.
But the lessons of that first Thanksgiving still ring out loud and clear across the intervening centuries. We knew humility and respect before the land and its bounty. We practiced humility and cooperation with a foreign culture in “our” new land, whose members we now know to be, like all humans, more than 99% genetically identical to us.
On that bright fall day so long ago, those two American values—respect for our planet and for our fellow beings—seemed to offer the same boundless possibility as the land itself. So we gave thanks, and we still do.