Thankgiving and immigrants

Cherished traditions come life in the celebrations  shared at Thanksgiving, drawing on the simple truths of harvest celebrations that date back to Greeks honoring the grain goddess, Demeter.

The most widely recognized historic precursor to today’s Thanksgiving tradition is the harvest celebration — three days of feasting and simple entertainments — that English Pilgrims who’d survived a harsh first year after the landing of the Mayflower shared with Chief Massasoit and the native Wampanoag following a good harvest in the fall of 1621. The Thanksgiving meal on many of our tables, with turkey as its centerpiece, and vegetables including squash and corn — crops the Wampanoag had taught the Englishmen to plant, possibly saving them from starvation — recalls the fare at common at harvest feasts shared by New England’s farmers through the colonial period. Folks looking for historic echoes of the famous meal might add venison to their menu, for it was the Wampanoag’s contribution to the feast of 1621.

But it is not the menu so much as the spirit of that now mythic meal that seems worth emulating: the woodland natives and the newcomers from across the sea, different in so many ways, finding their common humanity and celebrating together the simple pleasure of having enough to eat, and friends to enjoy it with.

Thanksgiving 2014 comes a week after President Obama addressed the nation on immigration and described his plan to improve the situation of some of the many people who live and work in this country without benefit of citizenship or even status as legal guest workers. Seeking to defend his actions he challenged critics in Congress to better his efforts and broaden the protections offered to immigrants.

These are complicated issues and the president’s executive actions are controversial — there are political implications as Democrats and Republicans court votes, and Constitutional questions concerning the balance of authority between the Congress and the President. People will have widely varying opinions. But in judging the president’s immigration initiative, let us think about the people he is trying to help, and the difficulties they face as strangers come to a new land in search of a better life. And let us remember that iconic meal of 1621 — English Pilgrims and native Wampanoag, sharing the great bounty of the American land — that we so proudly honored at our Thanksgiving tables.