Most historians describe the first Thanksgiving in 1621 as a festival where English separatist sojourners from the Old World invited their new Indian friends for three days of eating, praying, sports and target shooting of muskets.
Some say that that the festival probably occurred sometime in late September and others later on closer to November.
What is interesting was that these English separatists, who only centuries later would be called Pilgrims, were keenly aware for religious and political reasons that making friends with the Massasoit Indians was in their best interest.
Was it because they knew they needed the help and guidance of the native Indians to survive in this wilderness? Could it have also been that these religious English separatists — who mostly took refuge from the British Crown in Leiden, Holland, before their journey that lead them to Plymouth Bay — felt that sharing their faith was just as important to the potential of one day converting them to Christianity?
In fact history teaches that these separatists had practiced Thanksgiving customs in Europe years before they set sail for America.
In Leiden, Holland there was an annual Thanksgiving Day celebration on the third of October, when the pilgrim separatists celebrated their escape from religious persecution in Great Britain. They recited Psalm 107 in commemoration of the city’s Protestants, who had survived a brutal siege by the Spanish armada in 1575. They also styled their celebration both in Holland and in the New World from the Torah’s record of the Israelites’ first harvest in celebrating the Festival of Booths.
“And you shall rejoice in your feasts, you, your sons and daughters, your menservants and maidservants, and the Levite and the foreigner, the fatherless and the widows before you” (Deuteronomy 16:14).
The history of how Thanksgiving became a national holiday demonstrates an evolution of faith and culture celebrating new-found freedoms and gratitude for being able to survive in this frontier which would become the beginnings of the American civilization.
Even in colonial times, Thanksgiving caught on long before it became a national holiday. The Continental Congress began issuing Thanksgiving Day proclamations, and George Washington started the tradition of American presidents issuing Thanksgiving Day messages to the nation.
“That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks — for his kind care and protection of the People of this country previous to their becoming a Nation — for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war — for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed — for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.”
Washington understood even then the importance of unity in the new nation with respect for religious and civil liberties. Notice he commented on the “peaceful and rational manner regarding the government that is supposed to guide and support us as citizens of America.”
Here we have another opportunity on this national day to remember the blessings of this land, including the society we are supposed to be preserving for the benefit of each citizen. Later on in the proclamation, Washington calls upon all Americans to ask God “to pardon our national and other transgressions — to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually — to render our national government a blessing to all the People, by constantly being a government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed — to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shown kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord.”
I cannot think of a more relevant message than President Washington’s address in 1789 for this year’s Thanksgiving celebration. It is not just about a festival of eating but one of gratitude, repentance and reflection on the blessings and mistakes we have all made individually and as a society.
Rather than engaging in divisive conversation at the dinner table, is it possible that each of us could have at least a moment of silence to give thought and due consideration to the values our nation’s forefathers hoped would guide us over 229 years ago? Are those noble aspirations still applicable to us in 2018?
Do we have the humility to step back and say to ourselves that we can do better and more to help this nation fulfill its promise? Can we sit down at the dinner table, like the pilgrims of old, and share this communal harvest holiday together and still respect whomever sits down at the table with us just like the Indians and the Pilgrims did in 1621?
If the answer is yes, just imagine what a great hurtle we will have made for peace and tranquility in America.
Happy Thanksgiving to one and all.