When the father, mother and three children reach the safety of land and begin to face an ordeal of a different type than the one they have just survived, the mother (played by Dorothy McGuire) insists that the first thing they do is give thanks for surviving the storm and the shipwreck.
It’s not all that different from the concept of the Thanksgiving holiday that we celebrate this weekend.
The holiday is generally traced to an event about a year after the arrival on the North American continent of a small ship, the Mayflower, from Plymouth, England, in September 1620.
Fewer than half the 102 passengers on the Mayflower survived the 66-day voyage and the first winter, which most of them attempted to spend on board the anchored ship. Those who made it to the first harvest in the fall of 1621 participated in a three-day celebration organized by Plymouth Colony Gov. William Bradford.
Those early settlers and the fictitious Robinsons were not jumping for joy, but rather bowing in humble gratitude.
The surviving Pilgrims, as we have come to know them, were celebrating something basic and elemental. As the group was made up of various religious separatists, they acknowledged the beneficence of God and the blessing of the new world which, after exacting a toll, simultaneously gave them hope of better things to come.
They celebrated again two years later, after managing to endure a drought.
It’s interesting that the Pilgrims paused twice to give thanks not for any windfall of good fortune, but for making it through a challenging time.
The lives of most of us in advanced societies have become so soft and privileged that we cannot possibly relate to the mindset of those 17th century Pilgrims. We have so much to be thankful for, and they – in comparison to us – had so little.
A proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 led to a formal giving of thanks on the final Thursday of November, but Thanksgiving did not become an official U.S. national holiday until 1941, when President Franklin Roosevelt signed a bill establishing the fourth Thursday of November as the date.
Similar examples of national thanksgiving for the harvest are commonplace around the world and through history.
Our holiday, of course, goes far beyond that concept, owing to our prosperity and to the evolution of our society from one based almost exclusively on agriculture to one heavily industrial and commercial.
Like Christmas, present-day Thanksgiving tends to be much more of a commercial enterprise than a solemn pause to be thankful.
Let us keep in mind the reason for that original Thanksgiving in colonial Massachusetts 392 years ago, and the living conditions of those who celebrated it.
Let us be thankful, first and foremost, for the sacrifices of those who came before us which enabled succeeding generations to rise above such tenuous circumstances.