NC teacher Kim Mackey talks about why Thanksgiving’s historical start means we all need to have smaller celebrations during this pandemic.
As a high school social studies teacher I am always looking for lessons from history to offer perspective for the present. 2020 has not gone according to anyone’s plans, but the same was true for passengers on the Mayflower four hundred years ago.
If the Wamponoag people approached the Pilgrims’ dilemma with the same “I’ll be fine—I got mine” attitude we see among some of our neighbors today, there would be no Thanksgiving.
As we approach the Thanksgiving holiday, there are some teachable moments as well from the Pilgrims’ initial year-long struggle that can inform our current pandemic plight.
Stormy seas knocked the Mayflower’s course farther north than intended. Instead of continuing south to their original destination, cabin fever guided their decision to stay on the wrong course—an unfortunate sentiment mirrored by too many today. That decision likely cost half of the passengers their lives. We’re facing our own weariness staying the course right now when it comes to COVID-19, where we are seeing the highest amount of community spread yet in the country and state.
This past week we’ve received promising results of two COVID-19 vaccines. But just as the seasick Pilgrims didn’t jump out of the boat and swim to shore upon hearing the cry, “Land ho!” it’s important that we continue to sail prudently to ensure a safer landing with our fellow passengers. That means wearing masks, washing hands, and socially distancing when shared spaces cannot be avoided. The pandemic’s end may be in sight, but we’re not yet there and must all continue to do our part in minimizing community spread in the meantime.
Before disembarking, the Pilgrims decided it would be best to establish what is now known as the Mayflower Compact to guide their collaboration as they set off to overcome whatever unexpected challenges were ahead. It is a historical equivalent of a back-of-the envelope constitution. It reads in part:
“We… solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God, and one another; covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic; for our better ordering, and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.”
The early governing philosophy of our country was not “Don’t tread on me,” it was the recognition that we must “combine ourselves together…for the general good of the colony.
Doing What’s Best for the Community
Our land’s earliest inhabitants were also guided by duty to community. Had it not been for Samoset and the Wampanoags extending a “brother’s keeper” approach to unexpected neighbors, 10 million Americans today who descend from Mayflower ancestors would not be here. If not for the Wamponoag there would be no Samuel Sturtevant (my great x10 grandfather) arriving in Plymouth around 1640—there would be no me.
For over fifty years my family’s Thanksgiving tradition has been to go bowling together, but out of respect for a necessary Thanksgiving Compact, we are not making the out-of-state trip to visit with family we’ve not seen in over a year. We’ll not venture out to a local alley, either. Instead of helping my children pick out a bright orange ball at a bowling alley that weighs as much as they did when they were born, we’ll strap on a Wii remote to bowl in the virtual world we’ve come to spend more time in than we ever anticipated. Not because it’s our first choice, but because it’s the responsible choice.
With the support of their Native American neighbors, Pilgrims planted new seeds and adjusted to a new environment. In a few days we will celebrate the bounty of their teamwork.
Once, like was pledged in the Mayflower Compact, we all improve on “combining ourselves together” (figuratively in this case) “for better ordering and preservation” by taking this virus seriously, we will be closer to a new version of our own generation’s Thanksgiving story.