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Coming home to the wilderness

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Thanksgiving arrives in the middle of the week, yet it remains the quintessential American sabbath. A calm descends, clearing away distractions and disagreements, uniting families in an age when they tend to scatter far and wide. Thanksgiving Eve must still be one of the busiest travel days of the year. As if everyone were coming home. For good reason.

Of all American holidays, surely Thanksgiving is the most homey, the most comfortable, and the most established. It antedates even the establishment of the United States itself. It is the same from year to year, as comforting as ritual. Every year the same blessings are said over the same abundance. You can count on it. Unlike the first Thanksgiving in the wilderness, this American sabbath is taken for granted.

How strange that this celebration of roots, of the familiar, of home, of all things good and unchanging ... should have been originated by a band of wanderers. Sojourners who were very much aware they were only sojourners here below and should be. That is, pilgrims. First they had gone to Holland in search of their destiny. They had found freedom; they had found peace and prosperity. What more could they want? Yet they left. Once again. To set forth into the unknown.

How their Dutch friends must have pitied this strange band, this forlorn group of foreign zealots setting sail for a world they thought would be new. They were relying on little but faith in an age when faith, far from the cliche it has become in today's America, offered nothing but trouble and turmoil. They were leaving civilization for the wilderness, the world of Rembrandt and Vermeer for ... who knew what? A wilderness.

For almost a dozen years, they had basked in Dutch hospitality, for the Netherlands even then was open to dissenters of all persuasions, even these foreign nonconformists with their puritanical ways and odd ideas. Their latest exodus must have seemed inexplicable to their hosts. What was it, exactly, that they lacked in Leyden? They had seemed happy enough. Even now they were leaving with speeches of gratitude and affection, not complaint and grievance. Yet they were trading this refuge, this sanctuary, this safe harbor for ... what? For what any good, settled burgher would have considered a frightful destination even if these people survived the dangerous seas. There were reasons for the sobs and sighs of the friends who had gathered at the quay to say goodbye.

Yet the travelers seemed to have no second thoughts, perhaps because, to quote the account of their secretary and record keeper, Nathaniel Morton, "they knew that they were strangers and pilgrims here below, and looked not much on these things, but lifted up their eyes to Heaven, their dearest country, where God hath prepared for them a city (Heb. xi, 16) and therein quieted their spirits."

These wanderers were to prove the founders and forerunners of a commonwealth and nation and civilization beyond the fearful imaginings of those who saw them off. Perhaps because, on reaching their new home, and sensing the imminent destruction all about them, they remained fully alert -- and fully alive. Like soldiers in combat for their very souls. They seemed as aware of every danger as they were grateful for every deliverance, and saw the working of divine will at every turn. They took nothing for granted. But as the generations passed, they settled in, and grew complacent.

. .

"For the first several decades after the arrival in New England," notes the historian Daniel Boorstin, "fasts and thanksgiving days were unique occasions. ... There was nothing regular or perfunctory about these occasions; they expressed the needs or the satisfactions felt by the community at a particular moment. A day of fasting or thanksgiving in that earliest age did not mark the regular circuit of the calendar but was itself a symbol of the desperate unpredictableness of life in the wilderness."

But by the third generation in the new world, a change had taken place. Days of thanksgiving "were now fixed by legislation, defined by the passage of a regular span of time or the recurrence of the season when the community had learned that it would be likely to have cause for thanksgiving. Inevitably, these occasions became symbols less of the prostration of the community before its Creator than of the solidarity of its members: a time for complacency. In this sense there could be nothing more un-Puritan than Thanksgiving Day, once the day had been fixed by law and the calendar rather than the vicissitudes of life."

. .

The history of the Puritans, like that of Thanksgiving, might be described as a journey from Providence to pride -- a familiar enough course in human history.

Would those first pilgrims look with envy at all that has been wrested from the wilderness they encountered, and that encountered them? Surely, they would find reason to give thanks as they looked on the fruit of their quest, for they were not ones to be embarrassed by prosperity; they worked for it, prayed for it, blessed it, were grateful for it. They did not divorce the spiritual from the material, but sought to wed them, which remains the American way. They sought abundance -- an abundance of blessings.

Seeing what has been wrought on these shores, often enough in their name, would the Pilgrims proclaim a thanksgiving? Or would they look not much on these things, but ask: "Wherein lies the difference between this goodly and pleasant land and the Leyden we left behind?" And how, on this Thanksgiving, would we answer?

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