Originally published October, 2000. Republished October 13, 2011.
I have the great good fortune to live on Cape Cod, just a short drive from Plimoth Plantation. It was there, in the Plimoth settlement, that history records the first "Thanksgiving."
The intervening centuries have made it difficult to sort fact from Hallmark-fiction, but this much we do know, from one contemporaneous account from 1621: There were three days of feasting, in the company of Native Americans. The Thanksgiving holiday that we celebrate did not become a national holiday until President Abraham Lincoln declared it one in 1863. And it wasn't until the 1941 that its date was firmly established by Congress as the fourth Thursday in November.
While we cannot be certain about what motivated those Pilgrim settlers to initiate a feast of thanksgiving, it is likely that they consciously drew on a model well-known to them from the Bible they cherished. Seeing themselves as new Israelites in a new "promised land," the Pilgrims surely found inspiration in the Bible, in the Books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, in which God commands the ancient Israelites to observe the Feast of Booths — in Hebrew, Sukkot, "to rejoice before Adonai your God" at the time of the fall harvest [Lev. 23:40].
In Jewish tradition, the Festival of Sukkot is a joyous occasion to give thanks and praise to the Source of Creation for the bounty we enjoy. In fact, we are told that during Sukkot, "you shall have nothing but joy." [Deut. 16:15] Jews erect a sukkah, a harvest booth, in which they eat their meals, and sometimes sleep, during the festival. It is a reminder of the booths in which their ancestors are said to have dwelled during their forty-year Sinai sojourn. It is also precisely the kind of structure farmers in the Middle East still construct at the edges of their fields as crops come ripe and the need to rise early for harvesting makes it prudent to sleep nearby.
The sukkah is a temporary structure, hung with fruits and symbols of the harvest season. Its roof is thinly covered with branches, admitting sunlight, starlight, wind, and rain, reminding of us the precariousness of our existence in the face of the forces of nature. But the sukkah is also a powerful reminder of the many reasons for which we feel grateful to God, not the least of which is the fact that for the other fifty-one weeks of the year most of us are blessed to have solid roofs over our heads, clothes to wear, and food enough to fill our bellies.
Such was not always the case for the Pilgrims, who often contended with illness, meager rations, disappointed hopes, and death. During that very hard winter before the first "Thanksgiving," it is recorded that food became so scarce in some settlements that the daily ration of food per person per day was five kernels of corn. In order to remember those harsh times and maintain their gratitude for the plenty they now enjoyed, some New Englanders started the custom of putting five kernels of corn on each plate at their feast.
There is a strong thread which runs from the Israelite wilderness experience to that of the Pilgrims and the harsh years they endured as they strove to sink roots in this new land. Like the ancient Israelites of whom they read in the Bible, they were people of great faith who believed themselves to be sustained through God's great mercy and beneficence.
That they should rejoice and give thanks at harvest time was as natural an impulse for the Pilgrims as it was for the ancient Israelites.
Few of us today are farmers; we "gather" our food pre-packaged from the supermarket, far removed from the natural processes which make or break a harvest. But Thanksgiving and Sukkot come to remind us that there is far more to be grateful for in this world than a bounteous crop. Both of these splendid holidays encourage us to stop and acknowledge the manifold blessings God bestows upon us each and every day. And whether we accomplish that stock-taking over a slice of Thanksgiving pumpkin pie or beneath the leafy branches of a sukkah roof — or both — we understand and embrace the impulse which inspired our Pilgrim and our Israelite ancestors.