Growing up in America, Thanksgiving Day was one of the highlights of the whole year. Some years my family travelled to feast with others, other years guests came to feast with us. I remember the leaf piles, laughter, and Atari games with my cousins, and when we were home, I remember the five kernels of corn.
We would sit at tables that had been fully extended, knowing that the biggest feast of the year was waiting in the kitchen. We could smell it. We could nearly taste it. The tables were dressed up with the best tablecloths and plates, and on each one of those plates were five carefully counted kernels of corn. Before we ate them, my mom reminded us why they were there: she told us about the Pilgrims who landed in the new world seeking religious freedom, and how they struggled to survive those early winters in the wilderness. She told us how local Native American tribes helped the struggling Pilgrims, teaching them the right times and ways to fish and grow crops in a new environment. But then, just when they started to get ahead, a ship full of new settlers arrived without food supplies. To keep themselves alive, the entire settlement was reduced to a ration of just five kernels of corn a day. Could you imagine? Somehow, they made it through that winter and lived to bring in a good harvest the next year. As they celebrated that harvest with the local tribes who had helped them, they began their feast together with a reminder: five kernels of corn were placed on each plate, “lest anyone forget”.
In the enjoyment of their abundance, the Pilgrims made room to remember the difficulties they had come through. For my family, the corn did not represent the literal hunger that it reminded the Pilgrims of; still it symbolised the reality that, as the great hymn “Amazing Grace” puts it, “through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come / tis grace hath led me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
This year, we’re living through a long winter of rationed human contact, isolation, and mourning for all the good things we’ve lost, good things that we used to think were a given. We know that our seasonal celebrations will be subdued, compared to normal years. Still, as we look back, there are many reasons to be thankful for God’s provision in carrying us through difficulties. But looking back isn’t the only thing we can do. We’re about to celebrate Christmas, the birthday of the man who bought hope for humanity with his own life. Through his sacrifice in our place, Jesus freely invites us to feast with him in eternity. If we accept his invitation, we’ve a celebration ahead of us that will make the best of our Thanksgivings and Christmases on Earth look like a few kernels of corn in comparison. But these kernels are important: they remind us of the good that is coming, even as the Pilgrims’ kernels reminded them of the hardship that had passed. As we celebrate and give thanks, even in a difficult year, our feasts can be a foretaste of what is to come.
When we live in the abundance of everything we want, it’s easy to forget the hard times we’ve made it through. We need reminders, like the Pilgrim’s five kernels, to keep perspective. Similarly, when life gets harder, it’s easy to forget the good promises that God has given his children. We need reminders, like Thanksgiving and Christmas, “lest anyone forget”.