Every schoolchild in America knows the story of the original Thanksgiving. In 1621 in Plymouth, émigré English Calvinists struggled to make their way in the harsh climate of this New World. Wampanoag Indians helped them, teaching them to grow corn. In gratitude the Pilgrims invited the Native Americans to join in their harvest feast. On this secular holiday, with our extended families around us at the Thanksgiving table, we may be moved to give thanks not only for the feast but also for our families, our country, and our many other gifts.
But this modern version of Thanksgiving would horrify the devout Pilgrims and Puritans who sailed to America in the 17th century. The holiday that gave rise to Thanksgiving – a “public day” that they observed regularly – was almost the precise opposite of today’s celebration. It was not secular, but deeply religious. At its center was not an extravagant meal, but a long fast. And its chief concern was not bounty but redemption: to examine the faults in oneself – and one’s community – with an eye toward spiritual improvement.
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