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Jewish World Review / Nov. 26, 1998 /7 Kislev, 5759

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg The most American holiday

AS EVERY WELL-TRAINED SOUTHERNER KNOWS, the first Thanksgiving was held in Virginia in 1619 -- at Berkeley Plantation outside Williamsburg, to be specific.

If the Pilgrims up in New England had been a little quicker, and better navigators, they might have made the festivities instead of being waylaid in drafty Massachusetts on their way to the sunny South.

As someone once said of Christopher Columbus, he was an admirable theoretician when he insisted the planet was round but a poor judge of distances. The Pilgrims were a hardy breed, but less than exact seafarers.

With their usual genius for infusing material experience (or any other kind) with spiritual qualities, the Pilgrims saw in their blunder a providential hand at work. Rather than curse their luck, they embraced their trials. Which may be why they endured.

John White, one of the first historians of Massachusetts Bay Colony, gave thanks that in the New World men could increase ``the respect unto Gods honor ... by this work of replenishing the earth.'' Here, he wrote, men could know ``the largeness of his bounty'' and map ``the extent of his munificence to the sonnes of man.''

Now a people who think like that are hard to discourage.

When the good times -- namely, bare survival -- came for the Pilgrims, they wasted no time in throwing a bash for some earlier settlers in the neighborhood, Chief Massassoit and some 90 of his braves.

Although not Southerners, the Pilgrims had manners enough to know that thanks are best given together with others, and that bounty is best appreciated when shared.

These newcomers had come through a bleak season and a sea of troubles; thanks were in order, and it was time to invite the neighbors over.

Thanksgiving is scheduled routinely now by presidential proclamation, and put on the calendar well in advance for the convenience of busy citizens. Is that an act of hubris, or of faith? I vote for faith, buttressed by experience.

It would take decades before the Puritans, who came in the Pilgrims' wake, made Thanksgiving a habit. In those first years, feasts alternated irregularly with fasts, depending on whether the rains came or a ship was lost, or whether the crops were meager or the Indians proved tractable.

The Pilgrims might have claimed those early Thanksgivings were foreordained, like everything else, but they would never have been so presumptuous as to schedule them ahead of time. There may be nothing so un-Pilgrim or completely American as today's fixed day of thanksgiving on a given Thursday every November.

Yet there is no holiday more American than Thanksgiving. The way we celebrate it today might strike the Pilgrims as sinful pride, but their spiritual descendants accept it as another evidence of grace.

That acceptance, that routine thankfulness, is part of the national genius. It requires an unusual strength to accept the unearned with a simple Thank You. It takes grace to remain unapologetic for material wellbeing. And it takes great faith to anticipate prosperity -- not just for one's self, or for one's fellows, but for all. Which is how grace leads to charity.

Recognizing that we have been blessed, we proceed to bless others. Maybe that's why the generosity of Americans is noted worldwide. We share because we have been given much to share. Prosperity may do more to encourage generosity in man than than any number of stern lectures.

What a strange, unconsciously spiritual achievement Thanksgiving is. Not that Americans can take credit for it. The land shaped us before we shaped the land. Perhaps that is why we have grown so unafraid of grace, so accepting of it.

People with less to be thankful for say we ought to be guilty, not grateful, for our prosperity and strength.

But guilt is the great enemy of grace, and of thanksgiving. There are those who insist that Thanksgiving must be paid for, grace earned. To them, every holiday and holy day is an excuse to excoriate This Corrupt Society. (Which also explains the attempts to rid Christmas of Santa Claus.)

Every year some grinch will be heard trying to remake Thanksgiving in the image of his own ideology. Ideology is a word and concept the Puritans did not have, which may explain their success. Faith, hope, and charity they knew, but ideology is a latter-day phenomenon on these shores -- another useless but fashionable European import.

In a frontier society, ideology would have been just another unaffordable luxury. It still is in what remains a frontier culture, however rich it has waxed. In this country's progress towards thanksgiving, the experience of prosperity has led us to expect it. The free and easy acceptance of Nature's bounty has proven a great survival skill. There is something about prosperity that resists all theory. Our blessings are our most influential teachers.

To quote the American historian, Daniel Boorstin: ``The mastery of nature depended on the ability to understand rather than on the ability to persuade. The Big Lie could not help against a snowstorm; it would kill no wolves and grow no corn. Therefore, it was less important to make a grand plan, to make generalities glitter, than to know what was what and how to control the forces of nature ....''

The perceptive Mr. Boorstin added one other thought: ``There is a subtler sense in which the Puritan experience symbolizes the American approach to values. For the circumstances which have nourished man's sense of mastery over his natural environment have on this continent somehow led him away from dogmatism, from the attempt to plan and control the social environment.`

At a time when theories abound, let us pause on this holiday, look around at what has worked and will work, and give thanks for the fruits of experience.


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©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate