For the Pilgrims of 1621, a thanksgiving feast was a necessary act of gratitude - for having just barely survived.
More than half of the original Mayflower passengers perished during that terrible first winter in the "howling wilderness" of a new land.
By comparison, most Americans who celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday of 1999 might be hard pressed to find an equivalent hardship that they have overcome.
Instead, we express gratitude today for the expected goodness and abundance at hand, whether it's God's love, health, family, friends - or even just lumpless gravy, moist stuffing, and homemade apple pie.
Today's adversities seem minor compared with those faced by the pioneers who built a new life in America. That the Pilgrims reached for gratitude so soon after their horrific tragedy still inspires us.
Yet, if we take a moment and reflect back on the state of the world just a half century ago, it may help us relate more to the Pilgrims' plight and their deep sense of gratitude and sharing of what abundance they had.
Fifty years ago at Thanksgiving, the world had just entered a dark nuclear shadow. The cold war had begun. The future looked bleak indeed. Fear was in the air.
Western Europe had yet to find its feet after the devastation of World War II. The Soviet Union had just detonated its first atomic bomb on Aug. 29, and saw conflict with the West as inevitable. China had fallen to the Communists in October, and then linked forces with Moscow. The war in Korea was about to start. Communist rebellions were erupting in many nations.
America felt threatened and isolated on many fronts. Whole new concepts of national security had yet to be invented. And McCarthyism was in full force at home.
Even this newspaper, which is not prone to exaggerate evil in the world, ran an ominous editorial on Nov. 25, 1949:
The awful urgencies of an atomic arms race have begun to grip humanity. Peace has definitely not been made and the road toward war is being freshly paved with hate propaganda plus atomic bombs.
This sense of moving in a daze toward inescapable doom shadows every activity of our times.
Any solutions to this world crisis back then, other than perseverance in the cause of freedom, were not easily seen.
The Monitor editorial hinted at the perils of letting a fear of potential enemies create that which is feared:
Miserable mesmerism can and must be broken.... Moral and mental preparedness can be more important than military measures.... If we have faith in freedom's truth, let us prove it by our acts.
America was able to persevere through its late-20th-century winter, despite tragic losses in Vietnam and elsewhere.
When the Berlin Wall finally fell in November, 1989, the communist threat began to recede. China was facing strong internal demands for democracy and more openness. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, liberating the whole world from the nuclear shadow.
Today, after a decade of putting the world back together again, we take peace, democracy, and prosperity as inevitable for humanity.
And what's more, a more tightly knit world has come to realize how gratitude can sustain the lessons learned from darker times.
Last year, the United Nations General Assembly declared that 2000 would be the International Year of Thanksgiving. The events planned for this project are designed to elevate people's thinking in reverence for the eternal and to acknowledge a new world consciousness.
People in many cultures practice various rituals of gratitude. Sharing and expanding them on the eve of the millennium can lift us all to higher purpose. Gratitude opens hearts and creates a wider sense of community.
"For all that has been - thanks. For all that will be - yes," former UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjld said during the height of the cold war.
The founder of this newspaper, Mary Baker Eddy, wrote in 1899: "The dark days of our forefathers and their implorations for peace and plenty have passed, and are succeeded by our time of abundance, even the full beneficence of the laws of the universe which man's diligence has utilized."
The age of the Pilgrims is long past, but their lesson of grateful praise for a new stage of existence can remain a powerful force in daily lives.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society