The Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving Secret


by Candice Watters

Apart from the turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie, one of our favorite Thanksgiving meal traditions is a Pilgrim quiz. In the center of our table, next to the feast, is a small bowl with strips of paper; each with a question.

How many Pilgrims left for the New World?

From where did their long journey begin?

How many were children?

What was the name of the ship they began their journey on?

What was the baby named who was born en route?

Once in the New World, how many Pilgrims died that first winter? 

While we eat, we take turns answering questions to see how much we know about the Pilgrims and to learn more about the first Thanksgiving.

Our tables overflow with healthy, fresh, tasty food. It’s a far cry from the starving times endured by our early forebears. The quiz reminds us of how little they had at first. But it also connects us in feasting: the feast that followed their second year was a year of miraculous bounty. The Pilgrims’ tables groaned under the weight of deer, geese, turkeys, shell fish, nuts, vegetables, and pompions (pumpkins). They held that first feast in order to give thanks to God. It was He who called them to their new home, He who sustained them in staggering hardship, He who sent Squanto and Samoset to keep them from utter ruin, and He who brought them to the point of plenty. The Pilgrims are remembered for giving thanks after a bountiful harvest.

But what sets them apart, and makes them most commendable, is that they gave thanks before that. Their ability to give thanks in plenty flowed naturally from the trust they placed in God when they had nothing. The Pilgrims didn’t invent “Thanksgiving,” the modern feast that we Americans celebrate on the 4th Thursday of each November. For them, thanksgiving wasn’t a meal to eat, but a command to fulfill.

It’s good to remember the Pilgrims of Plymouth in 1621, but I suspect they would tell us to look back even further to the source of their thanksgiving. How was it that a small band of believers was able to give thanks when they encountered financial loss, bitter weather, and inadequate food; when half their number died, when they subsisted that first winter on a handful of dried corn kernels each day, when they didn’t know if any would live to see the spring? They were able to give thanks when they had much — and when they had little — because they knew the God from whom everything comes (1 Corinthians 4:7, Job 2:10).

They knew thanksgiving was the right posture for prayer:

Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name! (Psalm 100:4)

They knew thanksgiving was always in order:

Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:18)

They knew Whom it was that was deserving of thanksgiving:

It is good to give thanks to the LORD, to sing praises to your name, O Most High; (Psalm 92:1)

What about you? What will motivate your thanksgiving this November 26th? Are you wrapping up a great year? Are you newly married? Do you have a new baby on the way or a baby just born? Has it been a year of dreams realized, or has it been a year of dreams dashed? What obstacles are you facing to giving thanks tomorrow? Have you suffered a big loss or weighty challenge in your family? Is your heart heavy over a strained relationship? Are you facing illness or financial strain?

The Pilgrims offer a worthy example for giving thanks, whatever your circumstance. But it’s not their example, ultimately, that will help us in our celebrating. For that, we must look to the One they gave thanks to. Then we may say, with Paul,

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:11-13)


Curious to know the answers to those quiz questions?

1) How many Pilgrims left for the New World? 102
2) From where did they sail? Scrooby, England
3) How many were children? 31
4) What was the name of the ship they began their journey on? They set sail on the Speedwell, and ill-named vessel that leaked and proved unworthy for the long journey.
5) What was the name of the baby born at sea? The baby, a boy, was named Oceanus Hopkins.
6) Once in the New World, how many died that first winter? Half their number died during the first winter, including their Governor, John Carver, and Oceanus Hopkins. Of those who survived, over half were children.

For a wonderful picture book about the Pilgrims’s journey of faith and their faithfulness in the midst of great suffering, see Marcia Sewell’s The Pilgrims of Plimoth.

For a riventing family-centered audio drama, listen to The Legend of Squanto from Focus on the Family Radio Theater.