The sign said, “Entering Plymouth — est. 1620”. A moment I will always remember. Plymouth, Massachusetts … The Pilgrims, the Mayflower, the first Thanksgiving … And I was THERE, and the Sign proved it! I stopped my car to capture the moment forever on my old camera. No smart phones yet!
It was the summer of 1988. And I was taking our daughters — aged 13 1/2 and 10 at the time — on another road trip that they would only admit appreciating as adults. And my own excitement was not contagious.
But there it was in front of me … the faded sign mounted on top of the metal pole, with that quaint old historical look about it. But we might easily have missed it, dwarfed as it was by the telephone pole planted right beside it, which cautioned about the danger of high voltage and snapped me back into the 20th century.
But there we WERE … and there’s something about BEING there in the Real place. And that date on the sign … 1620. One of the first dates I ever memorized in school.
“Plymouth” — says the encyclopedia: “site of the first permanent settlement by Europeans in New England.”
But in another entry: “Plymouth — an outstanding summer resort. A tourist-based economy supplemented by light manufacturing of ropes and cords, fishing, and cranberry growing.” Maybe a clue as to where the tradition of eating cranberries at Thanksgiving came from?
Yes, Plymouth, MA has much to offer, but I must say that I found its Real gifts hiding beneath the commercialism and all of the distractions.
Plymouth had been an afterthought on the way to Lexington and Concord. And we arrived late — too late to see the biggest attractions, including Plymouth Plantation, a re-creation of the original Pilgrim Village — the Pilgrim Hall Museum — and the Mayflower II, a REPLICA of the famous ship.
But that turned out to be a blessing — because we had to seek out the REAL meaning of Plymouth for OURSELVES. We had to look for something meaningful outside of the now closed Tourist Attractions, Re-creations and Replicas.
We did find a couple of authentic buildings — and yes — we found Plymouth Rock. As a little girl, I had imagined Plymouth Rock as this medium-sized Rock, that each Pilgrim had personally stepped off onto as they disembarked. Later, I figured the “Rock” was probably mostly legend. But there it was … an actual ROCK … CRACKED like the Liberty Bell, and identified in 1741 by a 95-year-old man whose father had assured him of the exact landing place! At least, that’s how the story goes.
A couple of years before the Revolutionary War, the rock was split while dragging it to a spot near a Liberty Pole. Then moved twice more and sustaining more cracks — it came to rest on the shore of Plymouth Harbor under a portico of granite. And I’m happy to report that it’s actually touchable through a portion of the metal gate that surrounds it.
But I have to admit that it’s always bothered me when they cover something meaningful in itself, with a huge edifice that overwhelms it. First a simple monument to mark the spot, then a small chapel built over it to preserve its memory, and finally a huge building like some of the churches in the Holy Land, that overwhelms the place — the spot in which you are hoping to feel an intimate relationship with what happened there.
And I guess that’s what has happened to the story of Thanksgiving. It has become overwhelmed by a picture of smiling Pilgrims in big, black hats and white collars, Native Americans with headbands and feathers, and all sitting around a big table … with, I might add, very colorful and very live turkeys, and cornucopias overflowing with vegetables.
But even back then, there was much more to Thanksgiving than that stereotypical image of peace and good will.
And even now, in spite of the imminent approach of the BIGGEST shopping day of the year — and beyond the intoxicating aroma of roasting turkey amidst hectic preparations and football … beyond it all … we can find REAL Thanksgiving. And not only in the ritual around the Table of remembering something or someone to be thankful for.
So where did I find Real Thanksgiving back there in Plymouth? I found it on Burial Hill.
It was almost dusk and the sun was low in the sky as I moved up the hill among the old grave stones. I sat on a bench among the graves of some of the original Pilgrims, and looked down from the sight of the first fort and watchtower, onto the original center of Plymouth Colony — the two old churches nearby — and the seaport.
And away from the commercialism, in that simple old cemetery, I could feel the spirit of those Pilgrim colonists. And I remembered that it was faith and courage that had led them to flee persecution for freedom, and to journey into the unknown.
I remembered the picture entitled “Pilgrim Exiles”, depicting a few Pilgrims after the Mayflower had set sail again that Spring without them. They were looking off into the empty space in the water down below the hill, where the Mayflower had lain at anchor during the first terrible winter. There was no turning back now, and survival was not guaranteed.
Even in their decision to leave for America, there had been heartaches. The majority of the original congregation and some of the colonists’ children had remained in Holland and Governor Bradford’s wife had died soon after their arrival, while he was on an expedition on shore.
And by the time of that First Thanksgiving, they had been plagued by sickness and death, after losing half of their group that first Winter.
So when they famously celebrated in thankfulness, that gratitude did not come forth out of just positive experiences — as if Real thanksgiving can ONLY happen when Life is Great — in every way!
It’s been said that Happiness depends on Happenings. Whether they are good or bad. If I have a great day, I’m happy; If everything goes wrong — maybe NOT so happy. But even those happy feelings are fleeting.
But REAL Thankfulness in an ATTITUDE … not dependent on our present circumstances. In fact, it is a response of Gratitude — a word coming from the same root as Grace.
The first Thanksgiving was a recognition of the grace shown to the Pilgrims by the Strangers who now shared food and fellowship with them, and an expression of Gratitude to their Creator for this and other blessings.
The word “Joy” also evolves from the root word for Grace, and flows out from Gratitude. And if we, like the Pilgrims, are able to recognize the graciousness of others and the blessings bestowed upon us by God, even in the hardest of times, then we can know real JOY.
JOY is said to be “Grace Recognized”. And for me — that is the REAL meaning of Thanksgiving.