Thanksgiving Day – A needed reminder to count our blessings?

by DR. ROBIN MCFEE November 24, 2015


"If the only prayer you said in your whole life was ‘thank you,' that would suffice."

Meister Eckhart

If ever there was an American Tradition that is, well as American as apple (or pumpkin) pie, it is Thanksgiving Day. Rich or poor, young or old, regardless of ethnicity or religion, this venerable holiday designated as a national day of appreciation perhaps captures more than most, the historic optimism, work ethic, and national character we as a people have shared over the centuries.  

Thanksgiving, at least from my childhood, and probably yours, too, has been synonymous with family time. It was more than a day; it was an event to be planned for, with great anticipation. Cousins, grandparents, friends from far away - all coming together to share more than a meal, to give thanks, and take a moment to celebrate in a personal way just being together.

Thanksgiving - not only a day of gratitude but one of sharing - visually, gastronomically, and tangibly conveys what De Tocqueville opined many years ago - "America is great because she is good."  It is after all, pretty hard to be good and ungrateful at the same time. In the flurry of stuffing turkeys and baking pies, most people share a sense of charity during this time of year - donating food to less fortunate families, volunteering at dinners for the hungry and homeless, inviting shut-ins and visiting others who might otherwise be alone at this festive, family time of year.

With the world seemingly going out of control as handfuls of people across the planet visit death and destruction on the innocent, as we've seen in Paris, the Middle and Far East over these last few weeks, and poverty rates growing, racial divisiveness growing to a magnitude that seems to eclipse the pre Martin Luther King Jr. era, colleges becoming anything but bastions of free speech, a political climate more polarized than Adams and Jefferson could have envisioned in their worst post Presidency imaginations, joblessness and underemployment becoming the new economic norm as individual buying power has decline with daily costs rising, intolerance of alternative viewpoints bordering on violent dissent, veterans who risked their lives abroad now risking their lives living on the streets as one of the fastest growing groups of new homeless, class warfare rearing an ugly head, anti-this and anti-that pervading our sensibilities, and the very notion of a United States of Americans with shared national sensibilities-patriotism being denigrated as arcane or even xenophobic, some might ask what is there to be grateful for? Given all that is happening in the world, do we even have the moral credibility to promote Thanksgiving as anything more than a day of football, overeating (if we are so blessed to have a full pantry), or pre-Christmas/pre-Black Friday shopping sprees?

As an aside, there have been studies that suggest people are more likely to say "I'm sorry" than "thank you."  Maybe we should have a national "I'm sorry day" similar to the Jewish Day of Atonement. I digress.

On top of that, a tug of war is occurring that threatens Thanksgiving; one side reminding us this is a family day of celebration, and one where commerce tries to co-opt the day as the start of Christmas sales, and Holiday Shopping.  Some have argued it is nothing more than a good day off from work, that the original purpose of the day is quaint, but antiquated in our fast paced culture.  Clearly for many of us blessed with good jobs, we can have large meals with turkey, venison, goose, duck, and lobster or pretty much anything we want, without having to wait for Thanksgiving. Anyone who has ever dined at The Publick House in rural Massachusetts recognizes the ease of enjoying a Thanksgiving-like meal every week. 

As I've written in prior years, Thanksgiving Day is an American Sensibility. Not that we are the only nation, or even people within our borders who have set aside time to give thanks for the blessings of the year, or the day.  Throughout the world days of thanks have been observed in one manner or another. Holding feasts of thankfulness was part of the Wampanoag and Native Peoples' tradition predating the first English settlers to arrive on the shores of Cape Cod, ultimately homesteading at Plymouth, Massachusetts in the early 1620's. For the English settler, Thanksgiving was a solemn day of prayer, thanking God for His blessings.

Such was not always the case, and we run the risk of losing a bit of ourselves if we forget how we got here as a people, and why we celebrate certain Holidays.

But thinking of all the issues we face as individuals, communities, and as citizens of a great nation facing numerous challenges here and abroad, well it is enough to make your head explode. 

Can we, should we reexamine Thanksgiving in the context of our own lives one more time?

For that answer I needed to make a road trip back in time - the 17th century to be precise, and talk with the folks who celebrated a bountiful harvest season with a festival. Traditionally such a harvest celebration would be a multi-day event with a bounty of foods shared between two distinct and different cultures - the Wampanoag People who had lived in the Northeast region of what is now called North America, and the English Settlers (who would later be referred to as "Pilgrims") of Plimoth Plantation.... It was this harvest festival of 1621 that ultimately became the inspiration for Thanksgiving Day.

" There is nothing more humbling than being in the wilderness"

Governor Bradford - Plimoth Plantation 2015


Feeling a bit like a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, I was immediately struck by the hospitality of the Settlers and Wampanoag People as I visited the homes of both communities.  In conversation with Wampanoags and Settlers, it became apparent each group recognized the blessings they enjoyed being alive, having ample food and shelter against the elements, being with friends and family.

The Settlers would quickly point out, between cutting wood for (glassless) window frames, or laying up food for the winter, or mending clothes - there were no stores in which to purchase needed items.

Listening to the Settlers recount their sojourn - limited supplies, sickness had ravaged their numbers, that chores always were many because if it was needed, someone had to build it, grow it, tend it, or repair it -  one got the distinct impression these were devout people with a purpose, not lamenting their tribulations, but embracing them as stepping stones towards something better.

While we are accustomed to weekly 18 wheel trucks restocking our stores, ships from England were not to be expected on a regular basis, ensuring supplies ran short, and new challenges presented themselves on a daily basis. For the contemporary mind, the notion of enduring such deprivation is humbling, even mindboggling. But what was more humbling was the Settlers gratitude. To a person, each expressed thankfulness that Divine Providence had brought them through their trials. They were survivors in an often inhospitable land, where bears, raccoons, wolves, and other manner of animal could attack their livestock or themselves.

I spoke at length to Governor Bradford who brought into specific relief the daily dangers of being one of the first Settlers in Massachusetts. It took weeks or more to build a home - open hearth fire cooking could destroy your house in hours, or burn your wife, or kill your child. A simple injury could be fatal. Truly you ate what you killed. Cold weather, and gale winds, vermin, insects, lack of supplies, few medications, all could make life miserable, even unsurvivable.  In spite of it all, he was thankful. Death was all around him. He was the leader of a group of people who faced challenges modern Americans can't fully comprehend. He and his small settlement sat as an outpost in a vast, untamed wilderness of continental proportions. And he voiced gratitude!

For those unaccustomed to New England in November, it is a bit chilly. Sitting in one of the houses - term used loosely - at the Settlement, which had dirt floors, gaps in the siding, open chimneys, and no fire in the hearth...well it was cold, musty, and damp in there. Fast-forwarding from the 17th to 21st century, I recognize if I am cold, I turn on the heat, and near instantly my home is warm. If it is too hot, I flick a switch and the air conditioner goes on. My house has multiple layers to the walls; the settlers had wood, and maybe a few cloth coverings.

As for food - well they had to grow or hunt for it. If I am hungry, I pop over to a restaurant or open the pantry.

Against this realization, I am reminded we in contemporary America get unspooled in a traffic jam or waiting at the check-out line of the local supermarket with our carts full of groceries, the variety and quality of which would be awe inspiring to Bradford and his cohort. We go nuts sitting at the doctor's office for 15 minutes, or near homicidal if we lock ourselves out of our climate controlled homes. Any of these scenarios our predecessors from four centuries ago would be grateful to "endure" compared to the hardships of surviving a wilderness, after travelling 3,000 miles on rough seas in a cramped ship - a mere match stick on an expansive ocean. A voyage that claimed the lives of many in their party long before the "new world' was reached. 

Thinking back to my visit with Governor Bradford it becomes clear we all have a lot to be thankful for!

Living in the 17th century required enormous planning and labor for the Settlers, and Wampanoags.

I sometimes wonder, are we too blessed to be grateful? Like the song said "you don't know what you've got ‘til it is gone!"

We all fall prey to that at one time in our lives. We get caught up in comparing ourselves with others, in essence counting their blessings instead of our own. That is, until we suffer loss, and wish we had what we used to possess. We all suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Except here's the thing - the arrows are metaphoric for us. In the 17th century they were real.

Partakers of our Plenty

Edward Winslow provides the only known eyewitness account of the first harvest - our model of the earliest Thanksgiving feast...

"Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent men on fowling so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors....At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us and among the rest their great king Massasoit...And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty."

Edward Winslow from "Giving Thanks...Thanksgiving Recipes and History, from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie"

To some people - Thanksgiving represents the start of Settlers stealing America from the Native People. To be sure, we didn't treat our hosts very well over the centuries following 1621. And we have some fence mending even to this day in terms of our Native Peoples. But let's avoid politicizing Thanksgiving. There's more than enough of that to go around, and more often than not, the end result is less benign than hoped for. It is worth remembering in 1621 that harvest was a moment in time when two diverse cultures found a way to collaborate and coexist. It was an example of one culture showing great compassion in helping strangers, all the while recognizing these very strangers may in fact become the instrument of their demise one day. That is charity worth examining, embracing, celebrating, and reenacting.


As Americans we enjoy a standard of living that far exceeds most other nations. We have freedoms, flexibilities and opportunities most people around the world can only dream about. We have a lot to be thankful for.

For me, I am thankful for the ability to be a physician, a writer with a loyal following, member of the FSM team, someone who is blessed for the camaraderie of a diverse circle of friends, being a mentor, having mentors. Additionally I can freely worship my faith, am a member of a loving extended family, and citizen of the greatest democracy in the modern world, the USA. Who couldn't appreciate the efforts of the preparedness, military, intelligence, and law enforcement communities who try and protect us from dangers others face on a daily basis. I'm grateful for the kindness of strangers, the enthusiasm of students, and the inspiration of people I meet on a daily basis who overcome challenges and obstacles in the hope of bettering their lives, and that of their children.

It is, after all, how we choose to look at things - assuming the best, allowing ourselves to be both inspired, and inspirational. Is that not better than seeing dark ulterior motives in every deed, followed by the need to denigrate something that for so many years served a good purpose?

Maybe, just maybe there is wisdom in having a national day of thanks.

Linus might counsel Charlie Brown that the purpose of Thanksgiving is to look outward, towards others. Not at our needs or wants or dissatisfaction or goals, but through gratitude for what we have achieved, where we are, and what we can do with our bounty.   If for no other reason than to remind us there are lots of things to be grateful for in our lives, even amidst the insanity and challenges of contemporary life. Perhaps taking time to count what we have instead of what we don't, or looking at life through the eyes of those who are deprived compared to our own lot in life, is a way to make our circle, and the greater community a better place.

Thanksgiving Day - a needed reminder to count our blessings?  You be the judge. For me, a resounding yes! And in that spirit, I wish you and your family a healthy, bountiful Thanksgiving, with safe travels, and God's blessings.   

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Dr. Robin McFee, MPH, FACPM, FAACT, is a physician, and clinical toxicologist. As medical director of Threat Science - and nationally recognized expert in WMD preparedness, she consults with government agencies, corporations and the media. Dr. McFee is the former director of the Center for Bioterrorism Preparedness (CB PREP) and bioweapons - WMD adviser to the Domestic Security Task Force, the former chair of the Global Terrorism Council of ASIS International, and a member of the US Counterterrorism Advisory Team. She has coauthored two books: Toxico-Terrorism by McGraw Hill and The Handbook of Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Agents, published by Informa/CRC Press    


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