November 23, 2021

The First Thanksgiving

The request to speak to one of our church’s small groups seemed ordinary enough at first. That is, until they sent me the topic: The first Thanksgiving. Curious...

There are many subjects on which I can speak with some authority, and even more subjects on which I can fake my way through to a semblance of competence, but the history of the Thanksgiving holiday isn’t on either list.

As it turns out, this small group wanted me to settle a debate: Was the first Thanksgiving held in Plymouth Colony in November 1621 or was it held at Berkeley Plantation in December 1619? Was the first Thanksgiving held in Massachusetts, the place where I was raised, or was it in Virginia, the place where I was serving at the time? Would I tell the story as it was told in my natal homeland or as it was told in my adoptive one?


Grace came in the form of an online article from National Geographic suggesting that the first Thanksgiving was actually celebrated in St. Augustine, Florida in 1565. Much to my relief, neither Massachusetts nor Virginia could claim the undisputed prize!

In breaking this news to our small group, I added this reflection: As followers of Jesus Christ, our core identity should not be a regional one. Our core identity should be that of a Christian, that of a beloved child of God. And for people with that core identity, the story of the first Thanksgiving is much farther away and much further back than either of the ones I had been asked to discuss.

Eucharist is the Greek word for thanksgiving. The story of a Christian’s first Thanksgiving is the story that we tell when we gather around a table, when we ask God to make ordinary things holy, and when we ask God to make ordinary people holy too.

There seem to be just as many cultural and traditional differences between the various branches of the Jesus Movement as there are between the various regions of the United States. You know what I mean: Roman Catholics think that they were first on the scene. Episcopalians think that their liturgies are the best. Baptists think that they have a monopoly on biblical literacy. The Mennonites think that they are the only ones who really understand Christ’s call to peace.

There is nothing wrong with having pride in our individual heritages – either regional or ecclesiastical. But, we need to make sure that our pride does not lead us to the rejection of other people and other heritages. We need to remember Jesus’ prayer at our first Thanksgiving: That we might all be one.

“Thou, who at thy first Eucharist didst pray
that all thy Church may be forever one,
grant us at every Eucharist to say
with longing heart and soul, ‘Thy will be done.’
O may we all one bread, one body be,
through this blest sacrament of unity.”

Perhaps this Thanksgiving, we can turn our hearts and minds not towards Plymouth Colony – or Berkeley Plantation or St. Augustine, Florida – but towards the upper room in Jerusalem. Perhaps we can see our Thanksgiving tables as extensions of Jesus’ own table, as places where God’s people are drawn together across their differences, as places where God makes ordinary things and ordinary people into holy things and holy people and then gives them as gifts to his world.