As we prepare for a season of Thanksgiving this month, there may be more ways to spice up our Thanksgiving than we think. Our standard approach is to reflect back more than 300 years to the great feast of the Pilgrims. In truth, their story invites us to look back more than 3,000 years.
When the Pilgrims celebrated their first Thanksgiving in the fall of 1621, they were not just thinking about themselves. They likely had the ancient Jewish Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) on their minds, for this feast was also held in the fall. It too was a time to give thanks for the ingathering of crops and it was a time to thank God for the end of seemingly endless wilderness wanderings.
The Pilgrims did not relate well to the traditions of England, not even to those with religious overtones. The English Harvest Home Festival was frowned upon with distain, along with Christmas, Easter, and All Saints Day. The Puritans, not as separatist as the Pilgrims, aimed to reform the Church of England. They based their teachings, celebrations, and their lives strictly on the Bible. Both they and the Pilgrims studied the Old Testament fastidiously and no doubt had an appreciation for the ancient Jewish feasts. The Puritans pressured the government to conform to Scripture and King James vowed to change them or drive them from the land. A group of Pilgrims fled the growing persecution and sailed to Holland and for a time, lived among Sephardic Jews. This exposure may have added to the Pilgrim’s appreciation for the Old Testament feasts and celebrations.
The early settlers, upon arriving Plymouth, called it their “Little Israel.” In their mind, like the Jews of old, they had fled persecution and bondage and had finally arrived the promised land. They likened England to Egypt, the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, Governor Bradford to Moses, and the Magna Carta to a weak start for the need of the day: a government based on the Old Testament. Governor Bradford expressed his strong desire to learn Hebrew, and Governor Cotton aimed to make the Mosaic code the law of Massachusetts. Harvard University, founded in 1636, required Hebrew and Latin as its first two languages. In a climate such as this, it would not be surprising if the Pilgrims celebrated their first Thanksgiving with the ancient Feast of Tabernacles in mind.
Let us keep this in our minds also as we prepare for Thanksgiving. The Jews of old took a whole week to live in booths and to give thanks and praise to God. The Pilgrim’s first Thanksgiving lasted three days. Do not these memories invite us to stretch our thanksgivings to God beyond a two-hour evening meal?