Five Kernels of Corn
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by Ellyn Davis
“Being thus passed the vast ocean and a sea of troubles before in our preparation, we have now no friends to welcome us, nor inns to refresh our weatherbeaten bodies, no houses, or much less towns, to repair to. As for the season, it is winter, with cruel and fierce storms. In front of us is a desolate wilderness full of wild beasts and wild beings. Behind us is the ocean….”
(William Bradford, the Governor of the Plymouth settlement, 1620, from his manuscript, Of Plimoth Plantation)
Our Thanksgiving Tradition
Every year at this time, I read again the stories of the first Thanksgiving in America. Those stories are reminders of the Pilgrims’ struggle to survive. During the first winter, the little food they had was rationed. Often, at a meal, each person received a cup of water and five kernels of corn.
For years our family has celebrated a special Thanksgiving tradition. Usually at Thanksgiving my extended family gets together—my sisters, my parents (before my father died), my nieces and nephews, and my own family. There is always a huge feast with turkey, dressing, rice and gravy, two or three vegetables, cranberry sauce, rolls, and several different pies for dessert. When it’s over, everyone is so stuffed they usually all head for a couch or bed to lie down for awhile.
But one thing we’ve always done before the feast is have a time of remembrance for all the many things we have to be thankful for. We set each person’s place at the table with a small plate. On that plate are five kernels of corn. It is a powerful image of the blessings God has given us. As each kernel is eaten, thanks are given.
The background story
It was in the fall of 1620 when those Pilgrims, and the crew of their ship, the Mayflower, set sail from Holland. The voyage lasted 66 days. One hundred and two people began the trip; one hundred two people arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts on December 11, 1620. One crew member died on the voyage, and one baby was born.
The Mayflower remained anchored in the harbor all through that terrible first winter, from December until April. If you've ever been to Massachusetts in winter, you know what it's like. Everyone lived on board the unheated damp ship until shelters could be built on shore. Of the 102 who arrived, only half survived that first winter. Fifty-one died: 27 men, 10 children, and 14 of the 18 married women.
William Bradford, their leader, noted in his journal, “Death visited us daily, and with so general a disease that the living were scarce able to bury the dead, and the seven who were well were not in any measure sufficient to tend the sick….”
For months, people had only a meager amount of food that was rationed among them; often just five kernels of corn.
In March of 1621, as the winter was finally ending, a Native American named
Samoset who lived in what is now Maine, walked into the Pilgrim settlement and said, “Welcome Englishmen….” Samoset had learned a little English from the fishermen who crossed the Atlantic each year to fish for cod. Samoset returned to the settlement a few days later with his friend Squanto who spoke fairly fluent English. Squanto had been kidnapped by an English ship captain a few years before, sold into slavery in Spain, escaped to London and returned to America as a guide on a fishing ship.
Squanto then became both an interpreter and a mentor for the Pilgrims. He brought them food and animal skins, taught them to use fish for fertilizer, gave them seeds to grow vegetables, showed them how to build Indian style houses. And at the end of their first harvest, probably sometime in early October in 1621, the Pilgrims invited the Native Americans to celebrate a harvest feast with them, a feast that stretched into a three day celebration.
The following is adapted from The Light and the Glory, by Peter Marshall, and David Manuel.
That summer of 1621 was beautiful. Much work went into the building of new dwellings, and ten men were sent north up the coast in the sailing shallop to conduct trade with the Indians. Squanto once again acted as their guide and interpreter. It was a successful trip, and that fall's harvest provided more than enough corn to see them through their second winter.
The pilgrims were brimming over with gratitude, not only to Squanto and the Wampanoags who had been so friendly, but to their God. In Him they had trusted, and He had honored their obedience beyond their dreams. So, Governor Bradford declared a day of public Thanksgiving.
Massasoit was invited, and unexpectedly arrived a day early-with NINETY Indians! Counting their numbers, the Pilgrims had to pray hard to keep from giving in to despair. To feed such a crowd would cut deeply into the food supply that was supposed to get them through the winter.
But they had learned one thing through their travails, it was to trust God implicitly. As it turned out, the Indians were not arriving empty-handed. Massasoit had commanded his braves to hunt for the occasion, and they arrived with no less than five dressed deer, and more than a dozen fat wild turkeys! And they helped with the preparations, teaching the Pilgrim women how to make hoecakes and a tasty pudding out of cornmeal and maple syrup. Finally, the Indians showed the Pilgrims a special delicacy: how to roast corn kernels in an earthen pot until they popped, fluffy and white - POPCORN!
The Pilgrims in turn provided many vegetables from their household gardens: carrots, onions, turnips, parsnips, cucumbers, radishes, beets, and cabbages. Also, using some of their precious flour, they took summer fruits which the Indians had dried and introduced them to the likes of blueberry, apple, and cherry pie.
It was all washed down with sweet wine made from the wild grapes. A joyous occasion for all! Between meals, the pilgrims and Indians happily competed in shooting contests with gun and bow. The Indians were especially delighted that John Alden and some of the younger men of the plantation were eager to join them in foot races and wrestling. There were even military drills staged by Captain Standish. Things went so well (and Massasoit showed no inclination to leave), that Thanksgiving Day was extended for three days.
One month later, in November, a full year after their arrival, the first ship from home dropped anchor in the harbor leaving off a cargo at Plymouth: thirty-five more colonists. In the air of celebration that followed, no one stopped to think that these newcomers had brought not one bit of equipment with them-no food, no clothing, no tools, no bedding.
In the cold light of the following morning, a sobering appraisal by Bradford, Brewster, and Winslow was taken, and a grim decision was reached: they would all have to go on half-rations through the winter, to ensure enough food to see them into the summer season, when fish and game would be plentiful.
That winter they entered into a time of starving, much like the starving that took place at Jamestown that killed 8 out of 10 of their people. With all the extra people to feed and shelter they were ultimately reduced to a daily ration of five Kernels of corn apiece.
In contrast to what happened at Jamestown, where they were driven to despair, the people of Plymouth turned to Christ, and not one of them died of starvation.
When spring finally arrived (1623), they were well aware that they needed at least twice as much corn as their first harvest. The first planting would be for common use while the second planting would be for private use.
After the first planting, a dry spell set in that turned into a 12 week drought. The crops withered - along with the hopes of the pilgrims.
In the words of Edward Winslow:
"These and the like considerations moved not only every goodman privately to enter into examination with his own estate between God and his conscience, and so to humiliation before Him, but also to humble ourselves together before the Lord by fasting and prayer.
To that end, a day was appointed by public authority, and set apart from all other employments.
But, O the mercy of our God, who was as ready to hear, as we were to ask! For though in the morning, when we assembled together, the heavens were as clear and the drought as like to continue as it ever was, yet (our exercise continuing some eight or nine hours) before our departure, the weather was overcast, the clouds gathered on all sides.
On the next morning distilled such soft, sweet, and moderate showers of rain, continuing some fourteen days [!] and mixed with such seasonable weather, as it was hard to say whether our withered corn or drooping affections were most quickened or revived, such was the bounty and goodness of our God!"
The yield that year was so abundant that the Pilgrims ended up with a surplus of corn, which they were able to use in trading that winter with northern Indians, who had not had a good growing season.
That fall a second Day of Thanksgiving was planned, and Massasoit was again the guest of honor, and this time he brought his principal wife, three other sachems, and 120 braves! Fortunately he again brought venison and turkey, as well. The Pilgrims and these Native Americans signed a peace treaty that lasted fifty years.
As the first kernel is eaten, we try to imagine ourselves as one of those Pilgrims who sailed to American seeking religious freedom.
Imagine for a moment what it is like to leave your home and your extended family, many of your friends, your work, almost all of your belongings, and set sail for a new world that, most likely, no one you know has ever seen. Imagine doing that for your faith, for what you believe and value, for the freedom to worship as you choose, for the freedom to know God in your own way.
Imagine that your minister, John Robinson, your spiritual leader, is not allowed to go with you. But he comes to speak to you on the day you leave, and he says to you,
“Remember: God has yet more truth and light to break forth from God’s holy word….”
Imagine yourself as a Pilgrim. Would you, could you, have sailed on that boat? What do you have in your life that you would risk everything for? Thank God that some people called Pilgrims were so determined to forge a new life for themselves and future generations that they got on that boat for us.
The second kernel has to do with seeing what is missing in our view of life. There was not another recorded Thanksgiving feast for 53 years, not until 1676. This is the part of the Thanksgiving story that calls us to look over our shoulders and check out who is not included, who may be forgotten, or who may bear the burden of our good fortune, our plenty.
During the 53 years between Thanksgiving feasts, the Pilgrims, who had survived mainly because of the generous good will of Squanto and other Native Americans, had grown in numbers and, a generation later, had been joined by a variety of other settlers from England and Europe.
By 1676, the European settlers were driving the Native Americans off their land and killing them in great numbers. That Thanksgiving proclamation of 1676 declared June 29 as a day of thanksgiving during which these settlers could “express their thanks for their victories in the war with the heathen natives of this land.” That is the other side of the Thanksgiving story, and if you were to go now to Plymouth, Massachusetts, you could join Native Americans on Cole’s Hill on Thanksgiving Day to commemorate a Day of Remembrance and Mourning for Native Peoples.
In the midst of celebrating our thankfulness for this country and for our lives, we can remember to look over our shoulders and ask ourselves, "Who is missing? Who is not welcome at the Thanksgiving table?" We have had, in this country, many, many excluded peoples:: Native Americans, so-called witches and women in general, slaves, immigrants, people of color….
Kernel number 3 has to do with blessings for our country. I can never hear “America the Beautiful” without crying—especially the verse about “Oh beautiful, for Pilgrim’s dream that sees beyond the years.”
What a dream they had! In spite of all the problems in our country, we are still the most favored nation on earth and a model of abundance and generosity that almost every other nation aspires to and receives help from. We are very, very fortunate to be in a country that has written in its declaration of independence that we are entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The fourth kernel of corn is about thankfulness for the many blessings in our lives. Even when times are hardest, when it feels like my life consists of just five kernels of corn, there is still so much to be grateful for.
One of the secrets to happiness is to be grateful for everything you have, so I make it a practice to write a “gratitude list” as often as I can. No matter how bleak life looks, there is always something I can be grateful for. Like the fact I have a car, or have a roof over my head, or have friends who will help me if I get into a jam.
I recently drove with my son Seth to Arizona, and when we were passing through Amarillo, TX we stopped to eat lunch. When we came out of the restaurant, a woman about my age approached me. She was missing all her front teeth, but otherwise looked neat and well-dressed. She told me that her husband had hit her and knocked her bridge out and she had ran out of the house and was trying to make it to her son’s place in another part of Texas. She had gotten as far as Amarillo when she needed gas and ran out of money.
I’m always skeptical about these kinds of pleas for a handout, but I thought, “My God, what if that woman were me and I had to depend on the kindness of strangers to get me to safety?” So I gave her all the cash in my wallet.
She was extremely grateful, even though it was only about $30, and she said, “Thank you, now I can finally get something to eat.”
I was holding a take-out bag from Olive Garden in my hand with my leftovers and offered them to her. She eagerly took it and was effusive with her thanks.
I don’t know whether that woman scammed me or not, but I left Amarillo praising God that there was little likelihood I would ever wind up in her same situation.
The final kernel has to do with gratefulness for Jesus Christ. For the fact that we are so valuable to God and He loves us so much that “while we were yet sinners” He was willing to die for us.
That's our Thanksgiving Tradition. Hope you enjoyed it.
Resources about Thanksgiving:
The Mayflower Adventure by Colleen L. Reece
…If You Sailed on The Mayflower in 1620 by Ann McGovern
Samuel Eaton's Day by Kate Waters
N.C. Wyeth's Pilgrims by Robert San Souci
Tapenum's Day by Kate Waters
Three Young Pilgrims by Marcia Sewall
The Landing of the Pilgrims by James Daugherty
The Pilgrims of Plimoth by Marcia Sewall
Stories of the Pilgrims by Margaret Pumphrey
Squanto Friend of the Pilgrims by Clyde Robert Bulla
Sarah Morton's Day by Waters
Cut & Assemble the "Mayflower": A Full-Color Paper Model of the Reconstruction at Plimoth Plantation
Of Plymouth Plantation (Hardcover) by William Bradford
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