As for the holiday season upon us, I’m of the “Bah, Humbug” spirit of Christmas. The commercialism/sentimentalism that has taken Christmas over is irrelevant to the austerity and suffering of Christ’s life.
Thanksgiving is more genuine. Apart from turkey, cranberry and pumpkin vendors; it’s a noncommercial holiday, and thus the original story hasn’t been so compromised to buying and selling.
Sentimentality, however, still abounds, for there are precious few connections between modern America and our pilgrim forefathers and mothers of 1620, that band of radical individualists who didn’t celebrate Christmas either.
I’m afraid we have lost touch with what serious-minded nonconformists our Plymouth Rock ancestors were. From England’s point of view, they were fanatics, enemies of the church and state (one and the same in England in those days). Our mother country was happy to be rid of these traitors so she didn’t have to trouble herself to hang them.
Traitors, who is to say? One country’s traitor is another country’s hero. Puritan Separatists they called themselves. The pilgrims of Thanksgiving fame were convinced that the state Church of England, which began with Henry VIII, was too corrupted to be purified. In crossing the Atlantic, they were searching for a New World where they could develop their lives as their consciences directed them. As revealed in “Of Plymouth Plantation,” by William Bradford, their first governor, they saw themselves as God’s new chosen people and America as the new Jerusalem.
The price they paid for their religious liberation was enormous, more reflected in David Koresh’s Waco commune than in our soft-pew, mainstream churches today. To get to America, and through the first winter, they passed through hell.
First, a shipping company provided them unseaworthy vessels, and they had to return to Cornwall and consolidate into one boat. So delayed, their Mayflower was destined to land in the new world at the worst possible [TEXT CUT OFF].
Second, their goal to land in Virginia, where they would have found a gentle climate and a fertile soil, was foiled by unfavorable winds, which pushed the Mayflower farther and farther north until they [TEXT CUT OFF] ters are fierce and the soil rocky.
A bare one-half of the original 102 pilgrims survived the ocean crossing and the first winter. The wife of Gov. Bradford was among the first fatalities never setting foot [TEXT CUT OFF]ing herself while the ship was moored in what is now Boston Harbor.
One year later, after the stormy crossing, after the starving winter, after losing half of their fellows to cold, hunger and despair, they invited some Indians, without whose corn seed they would have had nothing to plant in their first spring, and gave thanks to God for their blessings.
The pilgrims who survived to the first Thanksgiving perhaps took comfort in the Old Testament precept that God tests most whom he favors. And if they sorely grieved the 50 who had perished the first year, they all the more richly celebrated the survival of their exiled community and its vision of a better world.
I possess an added interest in the pilgrims’ story because I went to high school in Plymouth, Mich., named after the first settlement of our New England ancestors. We had a big rock in the town square that we called Plymouth Rock.
Now and again, visiting Michigan, where my family lives, I’ll pass through Plymouth and eat lunch in the Mayflower dining room. It is surrounded on all sides with gray and white wall murals depicting historic moments of Plymouth Plantation.
My favorite mural portrays a moment I don’t remember reading about in Bradford’s history; rather, I think, it was inspired in the artist’s imagination as he reflected on the pilgrims’ lonely first weeks ashore in this new land. Again in grays and whites, it depicts our foreparents gathering at the seaside and watching the Mayflower sail out of sight back to England.
What a pregnant moment as their ship of passage slipped beneath the horizon, their bride to Europe now disappearing forever. What a big faith in the future, in us, that this “New” England would be a spiritual advance over the old, and would one day redeem the suffering and sacrifice required to create it.
A second slice of turkey, anyone?