Growing up in New England, Thanksgiving was a holiday of particular pride as many of the area’s ancestors hailed from Pilgrim stock, especially those affiliated with the Congregational churches throughout the Northeast. My Dad was the Senior Minister of one of the oldest Congregational churches in Connecticut (founded in 1639). It was the meetinghouse, worship center and municipal office of the city, and for many years, the surrounding counties. To say First Church has “Pilgrim Pride” is an understatement. The church has been through hell and back many times in its history with fires, disease epidemics and warring factions within its own walls. But just as the Pilgrims had done, the people struggled through, survived and came out stronger, more grateful.
Thanksgiving was Dad’s favorite holiday. I never realized why this one day held such significance for him until I reached adulthood. Our extended family lived in New Hampshire and Alabama, so our table was shared by friends, church members and those seeking shelter from life’s storms. From the very beginning of the day to its end, Dad lived this holiday; Breathing in the wonderful aromas wafting through the house as the turkey roasted in the oven, cherishing the time spent with our nuclear family, preparing the table for its occupants. He spent hours polishing old family silver, setting out family china and crystal as well as arranging the truly splendid centerpieces that always adorned our tables during the holidays. Every inch of Thanksgiving was poured onto that table just as it had been done in his family for generations. Nothing was left unpolished, unironed or to chance. To the outsider, our family must have looked incredibly wealthy with all of our fineries and grand 3-story historic colonial. But that was an illusion. The tableware, cherished family heirlooms passed down from generation-to-generation. The home, owned by the church, we but its mere keepers. The real richness of our Thanksgiving involved the people who surrounded our table, each hand-selected.
As we were seated for our meal, the turkey was brought out and set at its place of honor. Dad would say the Blessing, which consisted of poignant words describing how we were all feeling. Nothing was ever lost on my Dad, so before we got down to the business of eating, he would point to the most unassuming part of our place setting, five tiny kernels of dried corn set at the top. To most the corn kernels were simply decorative, a seasonal touch to the grand table. However, the meaning behind those kernels was anything but simple and embodied what Thanksgiving really meant to those who endured the first harsh winters here in America. To my Dad, it went deeper than legend.
The story goes that the Pilgrims invited the nearby chief and some of his braves to join them in a feast of Thanksgiving for helping the settlement sustain life through hunting and farming techniques unique to the New World. When the natives arrived, they quickly realized there were many more people to feed than anticipated. The Pilgrims shared what they had with their new friends and were grateful that their guests had brought meat and taught the women how to prepare maple syrup and cook a native treat, popcorn, made from corn kernels. Once the natives had left the settlement, reality set in…there would not be enough food to last the winter. The Pilgrims needed to ration – eventually down to five kernels of corn per person. Despite the meager meal, they lifted prayers up to God in thanks for the food in front of them. After 14 days of prayer and rationing, the chief arrived again, however this time he came with many more Braves and much more food. The first course served, five kernels of corn, a reminder of the suffering the Pilgrims had endured, the prayers that were answered, and the reassurance that God will provide. Simply put, Thanksgiving was not about a meal but a diverse community of people paying homage to one another FOR one another.
My Dad believed in the “Pilgrim Promise”. He believed that those five tiny kernels symbolized the Grace of God, strangers who became trusted friends, community. It served as a reminder to be thankful even for the meager meals. Those kernels, that story, set the tone at our table every Thanksgiving. There were many years our family had very little money but my parents managed to find a way to buy the groceries and clothing we needed. I know it wasn’t easy for them. What we lacked in money, our family made up in love. There was plenty of that in our home; enough for our nuclear family and beyond. It is for this reason, I believe, my parents opened their home every year to friends, church members and even strangers who otherwise had nowhere to go for Thanksgiving. And even if they did, maybe it was a way to say thank you for a kindness they had shown my family that year.
After my Dad’s death in 2009, those five kernels of corn are still set atop each place setting, we still invite friends and those seeking shelter from the storms of life to join us. The kernels have become the most beautiful adornment, outshining the lacy china and polished silver. Each person who joins in our Thanksgiving receives this gift – Grace. So remember to give thanks for those people in your life who have shown you Grace (however you define it), for those who love you for you, for your family whether they be related or not.
Happy Thanksgiving, friends.