Thanksgiving, celebrated these days in the United States, is often considered abroad as a turkey dinner feast. Americans travel thousands of miles – so that several generations of a family can gather around one table. Gratitude is expressed for the harvest, which in the modern world can mean economic welfare, health, fruitful relations with family and friends, and all the benefits of the year’s toil. The history behind the origins of Thanksgiving is instructive for modern times in several respects.
The first Europeans to set foot in the Americas experienced many hardships. Nearly half of them starved to death as agriculture failed in their new lands. Those who survived considered returning back to their homeland. Fortunately, the native Wampanoag tribe taught the Europeans to work the land using the ‘three sisters’ method, i.e. to grow the tall corn maize, alongside beans and squash on the rocky soil. The very next year, a plentiful harvest was reaped. To show gratitude for this saving grace, the first Thanksgiving dinner was held in 1621 when both the European pilgrims and the Native Americans came together to mark the harvest as a life-preserving celebration.
The tradition gradually spread, with rituals specific to different states and communities, and in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday. Since then, Americans have been expressing gratitude for life’s necessities, loved ones, and the community on Thursday during the 4th week of November.
In the early years, the newcomers worked the land communally and experienced all the challenges of collective ownership. From the year 1623 onward, however, all were allotted plots of land, and private farming began. This was the second turning point after landing on the new continent. Knowing that everyone would eat what they grew, people began to work harder, they did not hide behind the backs of others, and productivity increased in manifold ways. The result was a multiplication of yields.
Today, this celebration has spread far beyond America. Despite the fact that agriculture is no longer the sole protector of modern human life, the traditions of the festival have survived.
The harvest we celebrate today is not only nutritional sustenance, – but also new structures and vistas, vast sectors of technologies, such as electricity, transportation, and communication, institutions, such as commerce, industry, and academics as well as a wide range of services that make our lives not just bearable, but comfortable, meaningful and lasting. Harvest includes all kinds of income, dividends, and profits.
Just as nature itself gives us the principle of fertility, productiveness, and reproduction – to sustain life and continue human lineage, so does profit ensure the continuity of a certain activity, product or a service provided by an entrepreneur. Profit paves the way for capital investment, connects producers, consumers, investors, and ensures the efficient allocation of resources in a society.
What we produce and want to reap as a harvest in the end, must be bought and paid for by someone. In the same way, what we give to have goods, such as mattresses, bicycles and breakfast rolls made by others, confirms our need and provides harvest for the others. What is income to one is an expense to another. What is an expense to one is an income to another.
We want our income to be as high as possible and our expenses to be as low as possible – it is written into human nature. It is on this paradox, unfortunately, that many people are tempted to slip, being thankful for their own harvest while resenting that of others. Taking a broader view, we discover a firm, if at first sight paradoxical, law: if we want to be generously rewarded, so does the seller of buns, mattresses and computers. So does a news platform that offers readers a subscription.
And the market trader and the private medical institution for whom profit means being able to continue its activities next year. And for all of us, it means that next year, we will still find the person bringing our favorite tomatoes from afar, our private doctor, the designer of our clothes, and the grandmother with the strawberries (which many people think are insanely expensive, even though the same people applauded and cheered the increase in the minimum wage).
Just as harvest meant life for those who landed in America, so in our time, everyone’s income means life support and continuity of activity. Every consumer needs this as much as a product or service provider. Learning to live without getting angry with all those who serve us every day – isn’t that the perfect gift for a harvest festival?
The same ‘three sisters’ approach to farming teaches us to get along despite our differences, if not because of them. The three crops cultivated by the Native Americans – maize, beans and squash – produced bountiful harvests precisely because they were grown together. Sound strange? – The corn stalks were the perfect support to lift the beans into the sky. The foliage of the pumpkin covered the stony ground, kept the moisture in, maintained a microclimate favorable to all plants, and protected against weeds. And the beans’ ability to store nitrogen and increase the fertility of the land also served all the ‘three sisters’. There are lessons here for humans.
Americans’ belief in giving thanks for a good harvest promotes the mindset to seek a good harvest the following year. So we, too, who grow different crops on our private plots and serve each other with our harvest, can celebrate not only the harvest but also social harmony.