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In our opinion: First Thanksgiving is a model worth emulating

"The First Thanksgiving 1621" oil painting by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris, 1932.
"The First Thanksgiving 1621" oil painting by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris, 1932.

America has survived a bitter political season. Whatever one feels about the outcome, voters will at least feel thankful that it’s over.

The noxious brew of reality-show politicking and cacophonous confabulations caused an evermore nauseous public. And yet, such unpleasantries hardly compare with the dire circumstances braved by the 17th century New England Pilgrims.

Though by no means perfect, their example on that first Thanksgiving of looking to God, helping each other and forging friendships is a model worth emulating to ameliorate the country's partisan impasse.

After arriving on Cape Cod, the Pilgrim separatists were, as historian Nathaniel Philbrick put it, “fearful and uninformed.” They spent their first month after arriving “alienating and angering every Native American they happened to come across.”

Based on this fact alone, Philbrick concludes that “none of the Pilgrims should have emerged the first winter alive.” By the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving, more than half of the settlers had, in fact, died. For the living, however, their survival was nothing short of miraculous. In the midst of such trying times, it must have seemed seductive to swap their faith in divinity and humanity for despair and isolationism.

The fact that the Pilgrims instead chose to trust Providence, trust each other and their allies is a lesson as relevant today as it was when George Washington declared the republic’s first day of “public thanksgiving and prayer” in 1789 or when the war-worn Abraham Lincoln set apart the last Thursday of November as a time of “Thanksgiving and Praise" amidst the Civil War.

Though our national strife may seem but straw in comparison, the country can still reach upward in order to better reach outward.

While the Pilgrims were hardly paragons of present day pluralism — they fought their Native American foes and sometimes scorned their not-so-pious neighbors — their first Thanksgiving nonetheless offers a glimpse into how people can embrace a shared humanity amidst vast differences and a frenzied fight for survival.

Not unlike Republicans and Democrats today, the Pilgrims and the Pokanokets had, as Philbrick put it mildly, “profound differences.” Apart from the obvious contrasts in language, religion, ethnicity, culture and country, in New England the Pilgrims were new immigrants and the Pokanokets were longtime natives.

And yet the Pilgrims and the Pokanokets viewed each other as fellow human beings. Pilgrim Edward Winslow described his Native American allies as “very trust[worth]y, quick of apprehension, ripe witted, just.”

So, during that first fall, the two peoples broke bread together as friends and fellow sojourners. They did not criticize each other's candidates or comment on the stale stuffing. Rather, they brought their best to the table and shared with one another. The Pilgrims lent a bounty of birds to the feast — the Pokanokets came with copious venison.

They ate underneath a canopy of fall foliage.

As families and friends gather around tables across this nation to commemorate that first Thanksgiving Day, it’s once again time to turn to God and each other. Republicans and Democrats, natives and immigrants, different classes and cultures must come together, break bread, shake hands, share hugs and heal. Building from a common ground of humanity with mutual goals of social flourishing, America can work together.

The country can choose a more thankful and trusting future. It starts by showing gratitude to God and following the example set by a band of natives and a group of immigrants who understood that they needed each other to survive. Indeed, it starts with thanksgiving.