Editorial: The Pilgrims as refugees, and reasons to give thanks

Four hundred years ago, as two British ships loaded with colonists reached Georges Island off the Maine coast in 1607, the minister on board offered this short prayer upon their safe arrival across the treacherous Atlantic: “God thanks for our happy metinge & safe aryval into the country.” It was a prayer of thanksgiving, an early celebration of the arrival of refugees to a new land, a new start on life for people who chose (for whatever reasons) to leave their native lands. One can only imagine, on ships sailing to points unknown, how grateful the passengers were to arrive safely.
If that is too thin a connection to what has become an American national holiday, consider that a dozen years later, on Dec. 4, 1619, the Berkley Hundred colony along the James River in Virginia held a religious service to commemorate “the day of our ship’s arrival,” and proclaimed the date would be “yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to the Almighty God.” It didn’t work out well for the Berkley colony, however, as the settlement (not long thereafter) was wiped out in an Indian massacre. Those were also dangerous times.
It wasn’t until the fall of 1621, that the Pilgrims, who had landed further north near Plymouth Rock, shared that famous three-day feast with Indians in which “lobsters, clams, bass, corn, green vegetables, and dried fruits, as well as a ‘great store of Wild turkies,’” were placed on the table outdoors and consumed by all, with the Pilgrims giving thanks to their good fortune in the new land.
For the next 150 years, Thanksgiving was celebrated in northern colonies as part of a religious observance, but the holiday also came to be associated with military victories. Americans along the eastern seaboard gathered on December 18, 1777, for a day of “Thanksgiving and Praise” in the wake of the Continental Army’s victory over the British in October of that year, marking the first holiday officially celebrated in all thirteen states—and such a celebration would not happen again until Congress declared November 28, 1782, a day of national thanksgiving.
Seven years later, on October 3, 1789, President George Washington ended a squabble in Congress about the exact day Thanksgiving should be honored by issuing his own proclamation, directing Americans to celebrate and give thanks on Thursday, November 26. As a symbolic gesture, the new president sent money to supply debtors in the New York City jail with provisions, while he attended church services, thus beginning the American custom of local charity associated with Thanksgiving. The day was celebrated annually for years afterward, but it wasn’t until President Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of the Civil War, issued a proclamation in 1863 that Thanksgiving would become an official national holiday celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November. The President stressed abundance and unity, invoking memories of holidays past, and striking a chord that resounded across the war-torn Union.
From the somber scene of the Civil War, the holidays as evolved into today’s commercial extravaganza with the Macy’s Day Parade in New York City and the unofficial kick-off to the holiday shopping season that has so defined this time of year. Yet, Thanksgiving also remains a holiday in which to give thanks for friends and family, for safe arrivals and the ample blessings we have.
Jumping from the past to the present, it’s not hard to imagine today’s refugees from Syria in a similar light as those earlier refugees sailing haphazardly across the sea to America. Certainly, the Syrians’ plight is more desperate and fraught with more immediate political and religious consequences. But the journey itself is similar; people uprooting themselves from the homes they’ve known in search of a place that offers safety and a new start on life.
It’s tempting here to cast disparaging remarks on those Americans who would turn their backs on these refugees; who prefer to shut the door based on their religion and the fear of radical elements among them. By succumbing to such fear, they undermine America’s values and the strength of character that has long distinguished this nation. But we need to unite, not further divide, the nation on this issue.
What is fair to ask — as we witness the destruction of cities and homes across Syria, and the desperate journeys undertaken by families — is how, as a nation, do we become our better selves in the face of what could be a credible threat to our safety?
The answer is self-evident. We rely on the principles that founded our nation. We welcome refugees who come in peace. We embrace a mixed culture knowing it makes America more vibrant. And, if necessary, we absorb the violence of outsiders just as we do the deadly gun violence committed by our own residents — with sorrow and grief, and a resolve for justice. That doesn’t mean we take the threats of the Islamic State lightly, but that we are magnanimous in our open-arms policy toward accepting refugees, even as we gird against the few radicals who pledge to do us harm and stop them in their tracks when possible.
Knowing that we can do both is ample reason to give thanks for the good fortune to have been born in a nation and culture that relies on political and religious freedom as the basis of our societal values, not on propaganda of an apocalyptical end and a brutal code of violence as routes to divine salvation.
Angelo S. Lynn

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