The cartoonist, picturing Wampanoag men peering at the horizon, quipped, “There goes the neighborhood.” The Mayflower at Plymouth brought Pilgrims determined to risk all for freedom, to leave behind the religious intolerance that warred in Europe. Peering back nearly four centuries, we can see the threads of wariness and fears that weave our welcome to refugees and immigrants today.
Squanto, a Patuxet man trafficked to England, escaped and returned, living with the people of Chief Massasoit. These indigenous people aided the colonizers through the grueling winter when half those intruders died. Their labors, their prayer and fasting-for-rain brought a harvest in autumn of 1621. Their celebration is cited as the beginning of our national tradition; ninety natives and fifty-three newcomers feasted on crops, fowl, and the five deer given by Massasoit. Pumpkin pie, pigeon pie, venison and turkey, and likely games and races, presage our seasonal menus, football and shopping. That colony even recorded the names of four women [Eleanor Billington, Mary Brewster, Elizabeth Hopkins, Susanna White] who, with their daughters and male and female servants, engineered the festivities that were three days of gratitude and resilience after bitter losses and disease. Over the years Governors, Congress and Presidents have proclaimed Thanksgiving as our national holiday.
The exuberance that marks our celebrations in 2017 can conflate the tragic with gratefulness. We hope for our own resilience and determination even as memories of personal, national and global disasters are an ominous and luminous horizon behind us. Our memories might deliberately name those persons whose presence or absence or deeds affect us deeply; they may be family, friends, enemies or Nature itself. Images of hurricanes churning on land and sea; of landslides pitilessly pummeling villagers; of fires engulfing forests and towns; of driven and droned annihilation of ancient cities; of willful weapon-attacks on defenseless folks: these are seared into our minds and hearts. Our defiance may be sung that we shall overcome or paraded as intensified security. And we may again rise in hope that erupts with an exuberance of gratitude:
Sister Eileen Kelly is a teacher who served for many years in New York and in the Bahamas.