Thanksgiving is upon us, that most American of holidays. We all celebrate it: a feast of food, family and friends. It is a grand tradition indeed!
But most of us no longer farm. We did not flee religious persecution in our homelands. So our thanks is not for our new life of religious freedom, nor for the bountiful harvest we have gathered in. We may see the Pilgrims and their 1621 Thanksgiving at Plymouth as a metaphor for a "good year", a time of abundance, a time of freedom. But can we really relate?
There is an another historical first Thanksgiving in American, though, predating the one in Plymouth. In Virginia, on December 4, 1619, the givers of thanks represent another facet of American identity. Berkeley Hundred was chartered by the Virginia Company of London. Like the Jamestown Colony (est. 1607) it was business venture. The goal of the Company was to gain a foothold in the New World, cultivate some cash crops and send them back to England. These colonies were chartered to reap profits for settlers, speculators and shareholders. How very American!
And yet, even the profit-driven leaders of The Company acknowledged that the safe arrival of the colonizers would be a reason to give thanks to God. By charter, the Captain was directed to hold a service of Thanksgiving upon landing in Virginia. After 13 weeks at sea, Captain John Woodlief led his 38 men in prayer: “We
ordaine that this day of our ships arrival, at the place assigned for
plantacon, in the land of Virginia, shall be
yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty
And so our first Thanksgiving was a celebration of our safe arrival, and the beginning of a new venture. For those of us who no longer live in an agrarian world, where life's rhythms follow the seasons, celebrating a harvest festival may be a bit of a mental stretch. But I think many of us (especially creative types and anyone who makes something out of raw material, drive, and vision) can relate to the thanks given at Berkeley Hundred.
When we take a leap of faith into the unknown we are like those first settlers, guided by a hope for a better tomorrow and a prayer that we will arrive safely. Like them, the profit motive may be a factor, but we are also pioneers, journeying toward a new world. We will only succeed with good winds, hard work, and the grace of God.