Five Kernels of Hope


My family had an odd Thanksgiving tradition. When my siblings and I were little, the night before Thanksgiving my parents would gather us into the smallest room in the house that we could all fit in (usually the laundry room), turned off the lights, sat on the floor, and lit a couple candles and we had a small meal of crackers, dried fruit and beef jerky. This was a way for us to remember the pilgrims’ voyage to Plymouth, and the unpleasantries they endured on their way to their new lives.

As us kids got bigger and didn’t all fit in the laundry room as well (and none of us were as keen to sit on the floor any more), we traded that tradition in for another one. At the beginning of Thanksgiving dinner, a few kernels of popcorn were placed on each plate and we would pass a basket around, taking turns saying something we were thankful for, and putting a kernel into the basket for each thanksgiving.

The significance of the popcorn comes from a poem by Hezekiah Butterworth (which we sometimes read) called “Five Kernels of Corn.” The poem recounts the story of the winter of 1621-1622 that followed the first Thanksgiving. After already being almost decimated by the previous winter, the winter of 1621 was even more severe on the pilgrims. According to tradition, by spring of 1622, food rationing had become so strict that all that was left for each person’s daily ration was, that’s right, five kernels of corn.

“Five Kernels of Corn! Five Kernels of Corn!

Ye people, be glad for Five Kernels of Corn!”

So Bradford cried out on bleak Burial Hill,

And the thin women stood in their doors, white and still.

“Lo the harbor of Plymouth rolls bright in the Spring,

the maples grow red, the wood robins sing,

the west wind is blowing, and fading the snow

and the pleasant pines sing, and arbutuses blow.

Five Kernels of Corn!

Five Kernels of Corn!

To each one be given Five Kernels of Corn!”


O Bradford of Austerfield haste on thy way.

The west winds are blowing o’er Provincetown Bay,

The white avens bloom, but the pine domes are chill,

And new graves have furrowed Precisioners’ Hill!

“Give thanks, all ye people, the warm skies have come,

the hilltops are sunny, and green grows the holm,

And the trumpets of winds, and the white March is gone,

And ye still have left you Five Kernels of Corn.

Five Kernels of Corn!

Five Kernels of Corn!

Ye have for Thanksgiving Five Kernels of Corn!

These traditions perhaps sound rather silly, maybe a little cheesy, but I am so grateful for them. This coming Thanksgiving will be the most difficult, heartbreaking Thanksgiving of my life. I can already see in my mind an empty high-chair, where my sweet Hope Zoe should be smearing sweet potatoes all over herself, and it is not an image that I will be able to (nor do I want to) get out of my head. I can hear my daughter crying because she’s hungry or because maybe the party got a little raucous and woke her from her nap. I will be wishing the entire time, with all my being, that she were there, celebrating with us.

But the traditions I grew up with comfort me because of what they have taught me:

  1. God is in all of it – We give thanks to God, because all things are from him. The “laundry room” times and the “five kernels of corn” times, as well as the feast times. The times of mourning and the times of rejoicing. The losses and the blessings – they are all from him, and we thank him for them because he is also with us through them. He is with us in the midst of scarcity and want as well as in bounty. He never leaves us or forsakes us, but faithfully loves and cares for us.
  2. Thanksgiving is most profound when in a context of hardship and suffering – The pilgrims’ Thanksgiving is infinitely more meaningful when considered in view of what was behind them and what was ahead of them. It becomes even more astounding when we realize that they were not unaware of or trying to forget the pain, suffering, and hardship around them. In the poem, Bradford cries out, calling his people to give thanks, from Burial Hill! We have survived the dark winter, and we still each have just a little bit left. In the jaws of loss, we give thanks for what we have; in the valley of the shadow of death, we cling to the hope of new life.
  3. Thanksgiving is not only for what we have, but for what is to come – These two stanzas (as well as two more) speak in great detail of coming spring, of new life and new hope. The perilous voyage was endured because of the promise of a new home ahead. This means that yes, we give thanks and enjoy what we have, but the best is yet to come. Something better than all this is on the way! Although I know joy will come again in this life, and there is still much here to be thankful for, my hope is not for fulfillment in this life, but that one day I will feast at the table of my King, with my daughter on my lap, my family around me, and together we will give thanks for all He has done! Oh come soon Lord Jesus!

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