Food and drink 

Finding a state of grace: Thanksgiving reinterpreted and invented

It’s been many a year — 387 of them, to be exact — since Thanksgiving, as we North Americans know it, was first celebrated by Plymouth Colony in what today is Plymouth, Massachusetts, home to Plymouth Rock and all things Pilgrim-ish.

Those early English settlers with the funny black conical hats who were fleeing religious persecution in England and, later, Holland, were no doubt grateful for so much that first Thanksgiving — first that they had even survived the journey and then managed to live an entire year after their good ship Mayflower, which has been as mythologized as the Pilgrims themselves, landed in 1620. Also, we can only suppose the depth of their gratitude for having found the freedom and free land to live as they wanted.

Today, this iconic horseshoe-shaped peninsula surrounding Cape Cod Bay, along with the island sitting a few miles south that holds Martha’s Vineyard, has become equally mythologized, partly for reasons historical and patriotic and partly for its fame as a summer colony for the elite, especially America’s.

Be they politicos, celebrities, artistes or just plain rich, people like the Clintons, the Kennedys, Paul McCartney, David Letterman and William Styron have also presumably found a state of grace in the simple Atlantic-coast beauty and low-key lifestyle this historic area engenders. They dock their fine sailboats, and buy up fine Cape Cod or Victorian beauties or ornate red brick and white-colonnaded Colonial Revivalist homes, and return year after year.

By my Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories , the words “grace,” “grateful,” “gratitude” and even “gratuity” all come from the same root, the Latin gratus meaning “pleasing” or “thankful.” “Thanks,” on the other hand, comes from the Old English thancas , the plural of thanc , which meant “kindly thought or gratitude,” which is Germanic in origin and related to the Dutch dank , the German Dank and, surprisingly, the English think .

When I imagine those early settlers in Plymouth and compare them to us today it strikes me that gratus is pretty much M. I. A. in contemporary life.

Other than the occasional “thank goodness” moment when a guy running a red light whizzes past the front bumper of your car, or a sigh of relief when your mammogram results come back negative, or that more people weren’t hurt, or hurt more badly, in that La Bocca explosion, most of us seldom enter a deep state of gratitude.


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