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The Old Story of Thanksgiving

This is a story that you already know. But even though you've heard it about a million times, we tell it every year anyway, to remind ourselves why we celebrate Thanksgiving.

The story begins in England. In England in those days, every town had only one church, and it was called the Church of England. You had to belong to that church, like it or not. It's not like it is here today, where families get to choose which church they want to go to. Back then, there were no other churches to choose from! But a small group of people decided they could no longer believe the things that were said and believed in the Church of England.

When they tried to form their own church in England, they got in trouble. They moved to Holland, where they were free to practice their own religion, but they felt odd living in someone else's country. Then they heard about a new land across the ocean called America, a place where they could have their own church, where they could live the way they wanted to. They found a ship called the Mayflower, and made plans to sail to America. These are the people we call the Pilgrims.

After a long, difficult trip across a stormy sea, the Pilgrims finally came to the new land, which they called New England. But the voyage took much longer than they had hoped, and by the time they got to New England, it was already December. Already December -- it was already winter! -- and they had to build houses, and find food, and try to make themselves comfortable for a long, cold winter.

It got very cold very soon. The Pilgrims had almost nothing to eat. The first winter that the Pilgrims spent here in New England was so long and cold and hard, that some of the Pilgrims began to sicken and die. Fortunately, the people who were already living in this new land (we call them the Indians) were very generous. When the Indians saw how badly the Pilgrims were faring, they shared their food so at least the Pilgrims wouldn't starve to death. Half the Pilgrims died in that first winter, yet without the help of the Indians, many more would have died.

After that first winter, things went much better for the Pilgrims. Spring came, and the Pilgrims were able to build real houses for themselves. They planted crops, and most of the crops did pretty well. The Pilgrims went hunting and fishing, and they found lots of game and caught lots of fish.

By the time fall came around again, the Pilgrims found that they were living fairly comfortably. To celebrate their good fortune, they decided to have a harvest celebration. They went out hunting, and killed some turkeys to eat at their celebration. They grilled fish, and ate pumpkin pie, and we're pretty sure they had lobster, wild grapes and maybe some dried fruit, and venison. However, they probably did not call their holiday "thanksgiving," because for them a thanksgiving celebration was something you did in church. At that first celebration, they did not go to church.

Their harvest celebration lasted for several days, with all kinds of food, and games, and other recreation. The Indian king Massasoit and some of his followers heard the Pilgrims celebrating, and dropped by to see what was going on. In a spirit of generosity, the fifty Pilgrims invited all ninety Indians to stay for dinner. Imagine inviting ninety guests over to your house for Thanksgiving! More than that, in those days only the Pilgrim women prepared and cooked meals, but there were only four Pilgrim women old enough to help with the cooking -- four women to cook food for a hundred and forty people!

The Indians appreciated the generosity of the Pilgrims, but they also realized that there probably wasn't going to be quite enough food to go around. So the Indians went hunting for a few hours, and brought back lots more game to be roasted and shared at the harvest celebration. At last all the food was cooked, and everyone sat down to eat together: men and women, adults and children, Indians and Pilgrims.

That's how the story of Thanksgiving goes. As you know, the Pilgrims called their first town "Plymouth," and as you know, they also started a church in the town of Plymouth. But did you know that a hundred and eighty years later, that church became a Unitarian church? That church in Plymouth is now a Unitarian Universalist church. So it is that we Unitarian Universalists have a very important connection with the Pilgrims, and a special connection with Thanksgiving.

Sources: Mourt's Relation, standard U.S. histories, plus Plimoth Plantation Web site.