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The True Meaning of Thanksgiving

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November 23, 2015

11:39 PM

As William and Mary empties, I can’t help but think about the driving force behind such an exodus. With all the seasonal talk, I think it’s about time we remember the real lesson of Thanksgiving. Before cranberry sauce, before vacation time, before the solicitation of unwanted distant relations, English immigrants came to this country and had the first Thanksgiving. When I think of that feast, I recall all those animated spoofs, all the squeaky clean details, all the good cheer, the brightness which, as we know, only plays second fiddle to the real thing.

The grit and reality for these early immigrants fade into white as the myth seems to eclipse history. I checked out Nathaniel Philbrick’s “Mayflower” in an attempt to piece together the truth. You will no doubt be nonplussed to hear that the truth is rather less picturesque. The opposite was always thrown in our face, but with Philbrick supplying the flash, we see the coarse visage become clear. Their expedition to the new world was perilous. Passengers and crew sailed for over two months battling the elements, disease and unbelievable restlessness. When they eventually made land, the settlers were greeted with frigid temperatures and starvation. The final toll was fifty two souls – roughly half of all settlers.

Thanksgiving break is peculiar in that it’s meant to be a vacation and yet, upon its completion, we are met with our final exams.

The rest of the story, of course, is well known. They formed a pact with the Indians and feasted together. But they weren’t out of the woods yet. Lest we forget, they were still far from home, in a foreign land surrounded by foreign people who had only recently agreed not to kill them – an agreement which owed its existence to the fact that the natives believed the English to be in possession of the power to spread disease at will, a false notion promoted by earlier expeditions and perpetuated by Squanto, the conniving bilingual. The future was anything but certain on the road leaving that feast. Yet the pilgrims plunged forward.

We go on vacation this week to eat turkey and be merry, but also to remember the courage of our ancestors who, being faced with unbelievably long odds, carved out a portion of civilization which lay the groundwork for the eventual colonization of America. Thanksgiving break is peculiar in that it’s meant to be a vacation and yet, upon its completion, we are met with our final exams. Naturally, a student grows nervous thinking about the future tests. They have prepared, but the real thing always has a few surprises, doesn’t it? That topic you were sure wouldn’t be covered glares menacingly up at you from that bright white packet and you start to sweat.

Like those immigrants long ago, we feast and we are merry, yet we return with a jolt to reality wearing a bemused expression, like we’re still trying to work it all out.

Such are the dreams over Thanksgiving break. Within the comforts of your own home, these thoughts can be manageable, but when you get back on campus, when those dreams become reality, it can be daunting. Like those immigrants long ago, we feast and we are merry, yet we return with a jolt to reality wearing a bemused expression, like we’re still trying to work it all out. “The vacation is over? What? I’m back here? The test is when?!” And just like that, we lose our courage. We fall into Swem like clouds rolling over a graveyard.

But why? Has Thanksgiving taught you nothing? We must venture boldly forth into the unknown. We carry the pride of our ancestors. We aren’t starting a nation, and maybe that’s reason to belittle our aim, but surely we are building something equally important – the brick and mortar foundation which keeps the nation they started standing tall and proud.

Email Benjamin Halkowski at [email protected]

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  • Benjamin Halkowski