Paul Greenberg

It's the busiest day of the year at the nation's crowded airports. And in many a kitchen. Imagine the hubbub that preceded the first Thanksgiving in American history. As every good Southerner knows, that festive occasion took place not in New England's harsh climes but in beautiful, lush Virginia. To be specific, at the Berkeley Plantation outside Williamsburg on December 4, 1619. You can look it up, as Casey Stengel used to say.

Yet it is the Pilgrim thanksgiving that has shaped our celebration of the holiday. Why is that? Because it is the New England tradition that has dominated the American mythos -- political, literary and religious. From the first, Southerners have been cultural outliers.

The Southern cavaliers may have sought to bequeath their manners to future generations, but the continuing dynamism of American society is largely a product of those stubborn Pilgrims and, later, Puritans. Both made of adversity a blessing, and saw in every twist of fortune a test and, soon enough, a text.

William Bradford's history "Of Plymouth Plantation," a mix of the pious and practical, the inspired and tedious, the clear-eyed and obscure, the obvious and mysterious, remains a latter-day testament -- as mixed an assortment in its way as any Talmudic treatise.

If only the Pilgrims had been a little quicker, and better navigators, they might have made that first Thanksgiving at Berkeley Plantation -- instead of winding up in drafty Massachusetts. With their usual genius for infusing material challenges (and any other kind) with spiritual qualities, the Pilgrims saw in their blunder a providential hand at work.

Rather than curse their luck, the Pilgrims embraced their trials. Which may be why they endured. And prospered. A people who think like that are hard to discourage. They could scarcely glance at a tree, a leaf, a rock without seeing a Sign and Wonder.

When the good times -- namely, bare survival -- finally came to Plymouth Plantation, the Pilgrims wasted no time throwing a bash for some earlier settlers in the neighborhood, Chief Massasoit and 90 of his braves. The newcomers had come through a bleak season and a sea of troubles, and thanks were in order. And what better way to offer thanks than to invite the neighbors over?

It would take decades before the Puritans, who came in the Pilgrims' wake, made Thanksgiving a regularly scheduled holiday. Indeed, there may be nothing more un-Pilgrim than today's fixed day of thanksgiving on a given Thursday every November. Talk about taking divine providence for granted. The presumption of it!


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.


 


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