It is Thanksgiving and a time of reflection. We pause to appreciate the bounty in our lives and express our gratitude. It is my favorite holiday. But this year, it is important to re-examine the history of the holiday and what it meant then and now.
The first Thanksgiving was a celebration of welfare. And before you all turn off – look at the root and origin of the word. It comes from a Middle English word (1275-1325) meaning “wel faran” (get along) and came to mean the good fortune, health, happiness and prosperity of a person, group or organization. Fortune. Health. Happiness. Prosperity. These are all things we Americans celebrate and strive for.
The Pilgrims were a sad lot in the beginning. They were aiming for New York and the mouth of the Hudson River, missed it by 250 miles and originally beached on Cape Cod. When they made it to what would be named Plymouth, these illegal, uninvited immigrants almost died.
They lived on board their ship for the first year and were saved by the kindness of the Pawtuxet tribe and an English-speaking leader, Squanto. Squanto had been kidnapped by a British explorer and taken to England where he learned English, eventually escaped and made his way back to his land. Yet, despite this introduction to Europeans, he reached out to this malnourished and diminished band of settlers because it was the humane thing to do. It was against his best economic and political interests to do so, but he provided them a hand up. Education, food and survival skills were his gifts and the start of the area’s colonization. It was the start of our nation.
By 1621 the Pilgrims had survived and thrived and threw a feast of Thanks. They provided the crops and Massasoit and his tribe of Wampanoags provided the meats and thus began an unprecedented 50-year period of harmony between the Native Americans and the interlopers. From welfare grew prosperity.
Then the holiday disappeared from the culture until another of our nation’s great divides. The economic stresses that caused the War Between the States – the greatest divide our country has experienced and survived – was the impetus for President Lincoln to establish a national holiday of Thanksgiving on the fifth Thursday of November. This was in 1863 and Reconstruction soon followed in 1865 – another time of opposing forces reaching out to heal and build a nation for the common good (the welfare).
The U.S. was wracked again during the Great Depression. From 1929 to 1938 the country reeled under economic hardship, great unemployment and climate changes that decimated our heartland. We came through and created our collective welfare by sharing, helping each other and having the government put us back to work. When it was ending, in 1939, FDR made this holiday of Thanks what it is today – the fourth Thursday in November.
Is it an accident that when Americans are on the brink it is a collective effort that brings us together or is it the core of our humanity? We are connected and the welfare of one creates the welfare of us all. This is a human instinct and what is good about people.
And we learned to give back. Americans have shared with each other and the world. At the close of World War II we initiated the Marshall Plan. It grew out of the Truman Doctrine, which promised to “support free peoples.” In 1947 General Marshall witnessed the Europeans, savaged by war, starving in the coldest winter on record. He pledged that America would do, “whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world.” Our government gave money, the governments of Europe worked together and every child in America made sacrifices because, “there are children starving in Europe.” (Every baby boomer remembers that phrase.) We collaborated for the welfare of the world. It was called a, “lifeline to sinking men, bringing hope where there was none.” The Marshall Plan had a huge effect and from 1948 – 1952 there was massive growth in Europe.
And now – 21st Century America. Once again we have seen crisis and hope. We have seen Americans come together with the largest election mandate since the 1980’s and saying we need to work together again for the welfare of the United States. Like Squanto and Massasoit before us, it is time to put away our fears and self-interests to build the interests of the whole. No one grows on hunger, illness, ignorance and malnutrition. This Thanksgiving take time out from the Black Friday sales and the rush to the next holiday to be truly thankful. Be thankful for the “wel faran” that got us here, keeps us here and is in the soul of all humanity. Be grateful for the welfare state.