One of the most striking facts about the traditional story of Thanksgiving—the one that we learn as little kids in elementary school—is that it’s basically true. The Pilgrims didn’t wear buckles on their hats, but they did break bread with the Indians, whose generosity saved them from possible starvation.
That’s just one of the lessons from Melanie Kirkpatrick’s excellent new book, “Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience,” just published by Encounter Books.
Yet Thanksgiving is so much more than a history lesson for children. It’s an expression of what Kirkpatrick calls “the universality of the human wish to give thanks.”
We’ll do it again this year, on the day that a Harris Poll last year said is America’s second-favorite holiday (after Christmas).
Kirkpatrick opens her book by describing a visit to Queens, “one of the most ethnically diverse communities in America.” Almost half of the 2.7 million people who live in this borough of New York City were born outside the United States. In this sense, they’re just like the Pilgrims of old: They’re immigrants who hope to make it in a strange new country.
As Kirkpatrick talks to students at a Queens high school about Thanksgiving, she meets an Ecuadoran girl who spots similarities between the colonists of Plymouth Rock and herself: “When the Pilgrims came here, they felt alone and didn’t have friends. Me either,” she says. A boy from Bangladesh explains that his family traveled to America with the aim of “pursuiting the happiness.”
These touching stories are what the historian Samuel Eliot Morison meant when he called the Pilgrims the “spiritual ancestors of all Americans whatever their stock, race, or creed.”
In other words, Thanksgiving is a holiday that unites us, whether our ancestors came here on the Mayflower, came through Ellis Island like my grandfather, or arrived yesterday as refugees.
This is worth remembering at a time when so many people loudly insist that Americans are divided like never before, in the aftermath of a messy election that seemed to focus on stoking fears rather than finding common purpose.
We’re united not just by our desire to eat turkey, but to give thanks for what we’ve received all year long—and, as Kirkpatrick notes, this yearning reaches beyond our borders to include everybody in the human family.
I see it every day in my work with the Global Farmer Network, an initiative that brings farmers together to discuss challenges and opportunities, and work together to find sustainable solutions that will provide safe, nutritious food for everyone. We have members on six continents. When we get together in person, we all see the superficial differences of appearance, language, and origin.
As we start talking, however, it becomes clear very quickly that we have much more in common. Farmers everywhere struggle with the weather, pests, and market volatility. They also want the same things, such as strong homes and good farms, education for their children and food for all. These fundamentals hold true for wheat farmers in Australia, coffee growers in Rwanda, cotton producers in India and tomato producers in California.
One common thread is the desire to share our perspective and our knowledge with each other. All farmers want access to the best technologies and information about new practices. They want to be able to access markets that will get the food and feed they grow to the people who need it. That is best learned when we share with each other.
Isn’t that what we do around the Thanksgiving table? We catch up with friends and family. We share stories. Grandparents give advice. Children talk about their favorite sports teams, the best apps, and what they want for Christmas. Around our family table, we set aside time for each person to share what they are thankful for.
And everyone contributes. Some prepare the food. Others help with clearing tables and doing dishes. And there is always someone ready to organize games or a good game of football.
It’s like the economic theory of competitive advantage: When people do what they do best, and then share from their own bounty, we all benefit.
“To these bounties,” wrote Abraham Lincoln in 1863, “which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.”
So, if you need a gift idea for the holiday season, consider Melanie Kirkpatrick’s “Thanksgiving.” Its message offers an important lesson we can learn from and be inspired by. We have much to be grateful for – including the opportunity to give thanks together.
Mary Boote is a Northwest Iowa farm girl who serves as CEO for the Global Farmer Network.