David Phillips: Plenty to be thankful for during this quiet holiday

David Phillips

The two most American holidays are Independence Day, which highlights our freedoms, and Thanksgiving, which highlights all the things for which we are thankful. Thanksgiving often gets overlooked because there are no big fireworks or mass celebrations and there are few things for big business to market to us.

Yet, Thanksgiving has quite a history in the United States as observances are documented as far back as the 16th century in territories settled by Spaniards and the French. The most prominent event — the one in our elementary school history books — is the 1621 celebration at Plymouth Plantation, now in Massachusetts. After a successful growing season, settlers held a three-day harvest feast that brought native people and Pilgrims together to give thanks.

Pilgrims had settled in land abandoned by Patuxet Indians, nearly all who had died in a plague. American Indians helped the Pilgrims adapt to the land, showing them how to catch fish and grow corn, and giving them food when supplies from England ran low.

It was a joyous time for these immigrants who appreciated the chance to start a new life in a new land free from the shackles of the Church of England from which they broke away.

The fervor of Thanksgiving has waned in recent years, not just because retailers have little to sell us, but also because many of us belong to families that have lived here for generations covering decades, even centuries. We have taken our existence in this new land for granted.

The exception seems to be recent immigrants, which became clear during the impeachment hearings the last two weeks. While many people were hanging on the words of each person called to testify to see if they confirmed or rebutted their views on the conduct of the president, the most interesting parts of the testimony were the personal stories told by witnesses at the hearings.

Lt. Col Alexander Vindman, the National Security Council’s Ukraine expert, described how his family fled to the United States from the Soviet Union when he was 3 years old. He expressed gratitude for his “father’s brave act of hope 40 years ago and for the privilege of being an American citizen and public servant, where I can live free, free of fear for mine and my family’s safety.”

At one point, he addressed his late father: “Dad, I am sitting here today in the U.S. Capitol, talking to our elected professionals. Talking to our elected professionals is proof that you made the right decision 40 years ago. Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth.”

The line was so striking that one congressman asked him to explain why he was able to tell his father not to worry.

“Congressman, because this is America,” Vindman replied. “This is the country I have served and defended, that all of my brothers have served. And here, right matters.”

Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, also moved to America when she was 3 years old. Her family emigrated from Canada, although her mother had grown up in Nazi Germany and her father had fled the Soviet Union.

“Their personal histories, my personal history gave me both deep gratitude towards the United States and great empathy for others like the Ukrainian people who want to be free,” she told the committee. “My service is an expression of gratitude for all that this country has given to me and to my family.”

Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, described how his parents had fled Europe during the Holocaust, first moving to Uruguay and then settling in Seattle.

“Like so many immigrants, my family was eager for freedom and hungry for opportunity,” he said.

Another witness, Fiona Hill, the former top Russia expert at the White House, told the committee she is an American by choice, having become a citizen in 2002. A coalminer’s daughter, she was born in northeastern England, “in the same region that George Washington’s ancestors came from,” she noted.

“I can say with confidence that this country has offered me opportunities I never would have had in England,” she said. “I grew up poor, with a very distinctive working-class accent. In England in the 1980s and 1990s, this would have impeded my professional advancement.”

But the accent “never set me back in America,” Hill added.

It’s ironic that most Americans whose families have been here for generations won’t speak about our country in such glowing terms. Self-serving politicians constantly remind us about what is wrong with our country. The impeachment hearings mostly amplified those problems, whether people believe the president is wrong or they believe the ones who challenged the president are wrong.

Yet there is much that is right about the United States of America. Immigrants who all too well know the real, life and death wrongs existing in other countries can tell us what is right with our country, and, as Vindman noted, “right matters.”

This Thanksgiving, take time to reflect on the reasons your ancestors, even if they weren’t Pilgrims, came to this country, whether it was to escape harsh conditions in another land or just to find a better opportunity. It may give you a new appreciation for what it means to be an American.

As Hill said during her questioning, immigration is “the essence of America,” adding that almost “everyone immigrated to the United States at some time in their family history. And this is what, for me, really does make America great.”