Two Numbers to Keep Thanksgiving in Perspective | Opinion

Thanksgiving feasts should make a significant comeback in 2021, after almost two years of restrictions and distractions that undermined the grateful spirit of the holiday.

Last year, public health officials strongly discouraged leisurely, crowded gatherings that could become Turkey Day super-spreaders. But even before the pandemic, polarized politics led families to worry about bad tempers at the table. Psychologists often warned that shout-fest holiday dinners could deal long-term damage to family relationships.

This year, vaccines have reduced viral load concerns, while the single most dominant and divisive topic of conversation has more or less retired to Mar-a-Lago. But that does not necessarily mean the Thanksgiving Day melees are behind us. Now, outspoken advocates will shift the arguments to the nature of the holiday itself: should Thanksgiving inspire celebration and gratitude, or become a "National Day of Mourning" to atone for our ancestors?

To put the occasion in perspective, families around Thanksgiving tables might bear two numbers in mind, to avoid unnecessary argument and promote a deeper understanding of what that original harvest feast meant to its participants in the fall of 1621.

The first magic number—53—counts the English settlers who survived the hardships of their first New England winter to participate in their now-famous expression of gratitude. Nearly half of the 102 passengers who arrived on the Mayflower after a 66-day voyage perished from punishing cold, hunger, digestive ailments and scurvy. The conditions proved especially lethal for women; of the 18 wives who made the journey, 13 died before they could join their neighbors in celebrating the harvest. In the flimsy village of Plymouth, only three families remained untouched by the constant mourning.

Thanksgiving turkeys
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 19: Turkeys, Peanut Butter and Jelly, wait for U.S. President Joe Biden during the 74th annual Thanksgiving turkey pardoning in the Rose Garden of the White House on November 19, 2021 in Washington, DC. Peanut Butter and Jelly were raised in Jasper, Indiana, and will reside on the campus of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, after today’s ceremony. Alex Wong/Getty Images

It's no wonder the hardy few who made it through the freezing and the dying saw something providential—even miraculous—in the survival of their lonely, beleaguered settlement. This may be strong stuff for youngsters to swallow while savoring a lavish banquet in 2021, but it's important to counteract the storybook vision of the Pilgrims' "errand into the wilderness" as a thrilling road trip full of benign surprises and crowned with epic success.

In other words, while the English arrivals may have benefitted from the "white privilege" that pervaded their society, they still endured more than their share of suffering—a factor that should earn them sympathy and respect from present-day skeptics who might otherwise deride their undertaking.

The second number to be noted in accounting for the Pilgrims is 90—the actual total of Indian braves who arrived, unexpectedly, to join the settlers in their harvest feast. The occasion cemented a treaty alliance that lasted, amazingly, for more than 50 years. Those who want to stress the brutal conflicts between settlers and indigenous tribes can provide no easy explanation for the friendly conduct of the Wampanoag warriors, who dramatically outnumbered the Mayflower survivors but feasted with them for three days—and even hunted for local deer that provided most of the meat for the joint repast—instead of making short work of the interlopers.

Instead of this benign reality, some sources have circulated a bogus story that the bloodthirsty Pilgrims declared their religious Thanksgiving to thank heaven for the slaughter of hundreds of local tribesmen. That claim actually refers to an incident in Mystic, Connecticut, that took place 16 years after the first Thanksgiving. What's more, the Wampanoags and their Great Chief Massasoit did fight on that occasion—but on the same side as their Pilgrim allies, combining forces against their common enemies, the Pequots, and other local bands.

No one could claim that the Pilgrims, or other early arrivals in New England, behaved with consistent generosity and decency to the native populations in the area. But the pattern for more than a half century was clearly one of greater kindness than cruelty. Missionary John Eliot, who arrived in Massachusetts in 1631, preached tirelessly to convert Indians to Calvinist Christianity, creating a substantial population of "praying Indians" and 14 "Praying Towns" that enabled Wampanoags to build their own devout congregations. The Mashpee Meeting House, constructed in 1684 a few miles from Plymouth, has hosted religious services (and tourists) for several centuries as the oldest Indian church in North America. The first Bible published in North America (1661) was Eliot's Wampanoag-language translation.

Ten years after the first Thanksgiving, John Winthrop led a much larger, better organized and more generously funded expedition of Puritans to settle the nearby area of Boston. In one of the most famous sermons in American history, Winthrop echoed the Book of Matthew by declaring that "we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us." The new arrivals not only expected rigorous judgment from the Lord and the rest of humankind—they demanded it. As the Puritan leader declared: "if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world." Four hundred years later, the Pilgrims still play a role as "a story and a byword through the world." Told with honest perspective—and with some crucial numbers to keep it straight—their story will inspire courage and cooperation.

Michael Medved hosts a daily radio talk show and is author, most recently, of God's Hand On America: Divine Providence in the Modern Era. Follow him on Twitter: @MedvedSHOW.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.