Since tradition is on our mind I’ll tell you of one that has been happening in a Manhattan home the past 20 years or more. A core of a few dozen old friends and relatives, enlivened by surprise guests—once we had an Indian maharajah in a turban—gather with their children for Thanksgiving. It’s a varied, bubbling, modern crew: former spouses, co-workers, step children, the woman across the street. Every year after dinner we put on a play about Thanksgiving. Everyone takes part—a broadcast journalist is Samoset, a grade-schooler is a Pilgrim woman, a businessman is Lincoln.
There is a narrator, whose job it is to intone: “In the year of our Lord 1609 a hardy group of dissenting Christian Protestants, called Pilgrims, left their native England in hopes of finding religious freedom abroad. They tried Holland, but it didn’t work. And so they decided to leave old Europe, and journey to what was called . . . the New World.”
In September 1620 they set sail from Plymouth, England, on a ship called the Mayflower. Aboard were about 100 passengers, among whom roughly were 40 were Pilgrims, who came to call themselves Saints. The remaining were called Strangers, not religious dissenters necessarily but a mixed lot of tradesmen, debtors, dreamers and I hope a brigand or two. If you’re going to start a new nation it might as well be an interesting one.
The journey would be long, just over two months, and hard. The seas were high, the wind against them, hunger spread, disease followed. People got on each others’ nerves. Disagreements arose among Saints and Strangers.
Here the kids read their parts with great enthusiasm.
SAINT: “Stranger, you do not worship as I do or dress as I dress. You are odd! This makes me want to ignore you, and forget to give you bread at dinner.”
STRANGER: “Saint, you people wear funny hats, and strange buckles on your shoes. You take your religion seriously, which is nice, but God wanted us to have a sense of humor, too. Please don’t be so stern and righteous.”
At this point of course comes forward Pilgrim leader William Bradford. He’s usually played by a distinguished guest.
BRADFORD: “Gentlemen and ladies, there is no need to fight. We are not enemies, but friends. We are fleeing Old Europe—together. We journey to a new home—together. We will make our lives on the new continent—together. Let’s think things through and create a new arrangement to better order our relations.”
And so they did. Meetings were held, debates ensued, agreement reached. There would be full equality between Saints and Strangers. They would govern themselves by majority rule. They would mark their unity by calling themselves by one name: Pilgrims. All the Pilgrim gentlemen signed this agreement, which they called the Mayflower Compact.
It was the first, great founding document of what would become the United States of America.
Here sometimes someone goes, “Hear, Hear!”
Now land is sighted, Cape Cod. A Pilgrim girls shouts “Land ahoe! Hard to starboard! Mainfast the jibney!” She’s talking gibberish because she’s excited: It’s the New World!
The Mayflower eventually finds a small natural harbor, named years before by Captain John Smith. It is called Plymouth. In time, one by one, the Pilgrims disembark and step upon Plymouth Rock.
Here—hokily, happily—we have a brief moment of silence.
Building a settlement is hard going, snow and sleet slow things. Almost half the Pilgrims died.
Then springtime, and a miracle. A lone Indian brave walked into the settlement. The Pilgrims were afraid—they’d never seen an Indian up close. The brave, Samoset, sensed and understood their fear, and said to them the one word he knew in English: “Welcome.”
They invited him to stay the night. He did, and later returned with another Indian named Squanto.
Our young friend George usually plays this part, because of his ebullience.
SQUANTO: “Hello. Good to meet you! I have known many English over the years. In fact I’ve been to England. The Captain of one of his majesty’s vessels took me there a few years ago. I learned the King’s English and people were good to me, and now I return the favor. I will teach you how to tap maple trees for sap to turn into syrup. I’ll show you which plants can be turned into medicine, and which are poisonous. I’ll teach you how to grow and harvest Indian Corn. I’ll show you where to fish.”
Squanto saved their lives. Harvests improved, and in time the Pilgrims had enough food to put away for winter—vegetables, fish packed in salt and cured over fires.
The Pilgrims wanted to thank God. And so their new governor—William Bradford, of compact fame—proclaimed a formal day of gratitude.
Here in the play Bradford stands and ringingly invites everyone—the settlers, Indians, parents and children, to meet, pray and thank Providence for the abundance with which they’ve been blessed.
Bradford’s speech gave us our sweetest memory of the play. Our friend Harry, editor and Englishman, had become an American citizen. He was so moved by Bradford’s words his voice broke. His wife hugged him, and we all went AAHHHHH.
Everyone came to the first Thanksgiving—Squanto and 90 braves and their families. There were foot races and games. The braves demonstrated their prowess with the bow and arrow, the Pilgrims with their muskets. One man played a drum. Everyone ate together at big tables and on blankets.
Years later, George Washington proclaimed a day of thanksgiving, as America won its war of independence. But it was Abe Lincoln who, in 1863, formally declared Thanksgiving a national holiday. In our play, as in his proclamation, he readily acknowledges the horror of the Civil War, but then takes a very American turn. There is much to celebrate. Peace has been preserved between America and all other nations. Harmony has prevailed everywhere except the theatre of direct battle. Our population has increased. We have every reason to expect a “large increase of freedom.” No human hand has done this. “(These) are the gracious gifts of the most high God.”
At the end, the players declare their hopes for the future:
SAMOSET: “For the broad establishment of peace,”
PILGRIM GIRL: “For the spreading of prosperity,”
SQUANTO: “For increases in human health, and great strides in the areas of human inquiry and invention,”
WASHINGTON: “For the continuance of our Republic,”
LINCOLN: “And the deepening of our democracy,”
BRADFORD: “That ye remember with special gratitude Squanto and his little ones and tribe, who were so very kind to the Pilgrims in those hard days long ago.”
* * *
And so our little play, put on again this year, in the heart of sophisticated Manhattan. I’m always struck: there’s such division in America, and so much country-love. I don’t know the political views of all our players. I’d put most as moderate liberals, with me a confessed conservative. But halfway through our show we are captains and Indians and presidents. We are moved by the story of how we began. We honor it. And we are not saints and strangers but pilgrims, together.