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A 2020 Perspective on Thanksgiving

| November 24, 2020

by David Sweetman

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is by Dr. David Sweetman, MOR Associates Leadership Coach and Consultant.  David may be reached at [email protected].]


This week we celebrate the 400th anniversary of the celebration of thanks for a good harvest and friendship between the Wampanoag Native Americans and Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony.  While we recognize this as the first Thanksgiving, similar celebrations occurred over fifty years prior on the North American coast, and the concept of giving thanks, including at fall harvest, has been part of world religions for millennia.


As we look ahead to celebrating what has been coined a “Thanksgiving like no other,” I offer a perspective of that first Thanksgiving that draws perhaps surprising parallels to 2020.  This Thanksgiving is in some ways not unlike the first.


The Pilgrims were not the first Europeans in Wampanoag land.  In fact, one of the Native Americans greeted the Pilgrims in English.  Those earlier Europeans had brought sicknesses and diseases that claimed many Wampanoag lives, with an epidemic ending only shortly before the arrival of the Pilgrims.  While the “First Thanksgiving” was celebrated in fall of 1621, the Pilgrims had arrived in Plymouth in September of 1620, over one year earlier.  It was a tough first winter for the Pilgrims, far away from friends, family, and normal routines back in England. Additionally, sickness and disease was rampant, with a significant portion of the colony perishing.  It was from this backdrop that the Wampanoag and Pilgrim communities persevered, built relationships with each other, and then celebrated and gave thanks for the fruits of a successful harvest the following fall.


Some of the most meaningful times to give thanks and show gratitude are when times are tougher.  Yes, it requires more effort, and the rewards of stopping to appreciate what we have are greater.  Thanksgiving will be different for many of us on the surface.  However, the underlying value of gratitude and thankfulness is consistent.


Another noteworthy milestone in US Thanksgiving history: Despite the universal appeal of setting aside time for thanks and gratitude, the early United States did not do so in a united way.  At one point there was a patchwork of 30 different state celebrations and traditions.   Making this patchwork of official celebrations possible is largely credited to the advocacy of the “Mother of Thanksgiving”, writer and editor Sarah Josepha Hale.  


Hale’s vision was even grander though: for a nationwide Thanksgiving holiday.  As she explained: “Everything that contributes to bind us … to quicken the sympathy that makes us feel … that we are one family, each a member of a great and free Nation … is worthy of being cherished.  We have sought to reawaken and increase this sympathy… We believe our Thanksgiving Day… will be a great and sanctifying promoter of this national spirit.”


Hale’s vision was realized in 1863 when it reached President Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War.  At a time when our country was in special need of unity, Lincoln declared a national holiday that began our cohesive Thanksgiving celebration as a country, hoping it would help “heal the wounds of the nation.”


There are so many leadership lessons packed into this brief perspective on Thanksgiving.  Here are some I see:

  • Take a point-of-view that puts gratitude first.  Observe the good things that can sometimes be easy to take for granted.

  • Express your gratitude.  Consider the gratitude you just observed.  Find a meaningful way to show your appreciation to others who make that gratitude possible. 

  • Be a fountain of respect.  Treat others with the same level of courtesy as you expect to receive:  smile, show kindness, exhibit patience, don’t interrupt, and listen.  

  • Be persistent in your vision.  It took over four decades for Sarah Josepha Hale to see her vision for a national day of Thanksgiving become reality.

  • Gratitude knows no bounds.  Gratitude for our shared interests is the vision Hale offered, valuing the things that bind us, that we are one family, each a member of a great and free Nation. A shared belief in giving thanks, Thanksgiving.


On behalf of all of MOR Associates, we wish you and yours a happy and safe Thanksgiving full of gratitude,