Thanksgiving is just about my favorite holiday—a wonderful combination of family, faith, and American-style religious freedom. I love the story of those hardy Pilgrims, and I love eating turkey and pumpkin pie and gathering with family.
Many of us tend to think of the first Thanksgiving feast as the official end to all the Pilgrims’ difficulties. Wrong: Their survival would remain in jeopardy for years to come. And yet, no matter how difficult things became, they never failed to offer thanks to God.
As every school child knows, the Pilgrims arrived in the New World in the winter of 1620. As the freezing weeks passed, nearly half their number died. It was a terrible time, but by spring, things began to improve. Friendly Indians helped the Pilgrims plant their crops. By October 1621, the fields yielded a harvest large enough to sustain the colony in the coming winter. The grateful Pilgrims invited their Indian friends to a three-day feast of thanksgiving to God.
That’s where the story typically ends—for us. But for the Pilgrims, the hardships went on. The next month, a ship arrived with thirty-five new colonists. But to the Pilgrims’ dismay, they brought no provisions. The entire colony was forced to go on half rations that winter. At one point, with food running out, everyone was forced onto a daily ration of just five kernels of corn.
As my friend Barbara Rainey writes in her new book, Thanksgiving: A Time to Remember, by spring, the colony was weakened by hunger and sickness. While the bay and creeks were full of fish, the Pilgrims’ nets had rotted. Were it not for shellfish, which could be dug by hand, they would have perished. Despite the great difficulties, they thanked God for His provision.
More ships arrived that year, usually bringing newcomers with no supplies. Pilgrim father William Bradford wrote in his journal that, given the poor harvest, it “appeared that famine must still ensue the next year also.”
By April 1623, the conditions were desperate. The Pilgrims planted double the corn of the previous year, only to see a drought several weeks long threaten the precious crop. In response, the Pilgrims held a day of fasting and prayer, asking God for rain. Pilgrim father Edward Winslow wrote that by evening, “The weather was overcast, [and] the clouds gathered on all sides.” It was the beginning of two weeks of rainfall. The crop was saved, and that fall, the harvest was abundant. Another Thanksgiving feast was arranged, and again the Indians took part. As Winslow wrote, “Another solemn day was set apart . . . wherein we returned glory, honor, and praise, with all thankfulness to our God who dwelt so graciously with us.”