On behalf of Fr. Timothy, Fr. Tom Skaja and myself, I would like to wish you all a “Happy and Blessed Thanksgiving Day/Weekend!” Although with Covid-19 many families will be unable to celebrate in traditional ways, my hope is that each person/family will come together in small ways to give thanks, be grateful and share some sort of meal. This said, we all have to measure out our Covid-19 risks with our need to gather as family which is also a very important part of being human. Thanksgiving Day has a great history and is a great American holiday, so with this in mind, I would like to give you a s short history on how this all begun:
Long before the Pilgrims landed on “Plymouth Rock” the original Spanish and French settlers, who first came to this country, already celebrated a day of thanks during the 1500s when they arrived in the “New World”. As more people settled, religious forms of thanksgiving became routine in the Commonwealth of Virginia with the settlement of Jamestown back in 1610. It is still debated as to who started a regular “Day of Thanksgiving” set specifically aside for that reason. Very likely there it was a combination of both religious and civil celebrations. This said, it was the Pilgrims who came on the Mayflower and landed on Plymouth Rock who made our official “Thanksgiving Holiday” so famous due to the hardships they endured that first winter, which gave them reason to be thankful the following Fall when harvest time come!
You should know that the Pilgrims were not Puritans but another group of a “separatist movement.” Both the Puritans and Pilgrims were of the Calvinist tradition, both declaring their independence from England for different religious reasons, thus forging a life and a colony in the New World. History points to Squanto, a Patuxet Native American who was part of the Wampanoag tribe who taught the Pilgrims how to catch eel and grow corn. He also served as an interpreter for them having learned English during his enslavement in England. The Wampanoag leader, Massasoit (Massachusetts), had also given the first colonists in his area food during their severe winters when supplies from England ran short. For the Pilgrims, it was the year following their first severe winter which nearly wiped them out as they had built poor homes and had little food, but were taught how to plant their own food provided for by the native peoples that they celebrated their first harvest meal around 1621 and in doing so shared their bounty with their Native American friends.
The first Thanksgiving meal included about 50 Pilgrims, (all who remained of the original 100 who died) and 90 Native Americans The feast was cooked by the 4 surviving women (Eleanor Billington, Elizabeth Hopkins, Mary Brewster and Susanna White) along with several other young daughters and male and female servants. (Some things about cooking never change!) The meal included things like fish (cod/eel), venison, Indian corn, turkey, and other fowl. Not sure if sweet potatoes or pumpkin or squash were among the dishes. (Not sure if anyone would actually eat the sweet potatoes anyway! My editorial comment.) This comes from accounts written by William Bradford, governor of Plymouth and Edward Winslow who also claimed to have witnessed the meal.
It was William Bradford who probably set the stage for making “Thanksgiving” a “civil” holiday and not strictly a religious celebration when in 1623, during a severe drought and following a time of prayer and fasting, there came a refreshing 14 day rain which saved the crop. That Wednesday, July 30, 1623, the day before the arrival of a supply ship with more colonists, Bradford declared that their colony celebrate a regular “Day of Thanks” for God’s blessing and divine mercy.
During the Revolutionary War and our struggle for nationhood various Thanksgiving Days were proclaimed several times a year, depending on what was going on in each colony. The first “National Proclamation” of Thanksgiving really came when George Washington set aside a day to give thanks in December of 1777 honoring the defeat of the British and thanking the “Almighty God for his abundant blessings and mercy.” As our Constitution was being drafted, President Washington, declared a more specific national “Day of Thanksgiving and the National Day of Prayer” to be set on November 26, 1789. In addition to this John Adams, James Madison all proclaimed Days of Thanksgiving in the years 1798, 1799, 1812, 1814 following the War of 1812. Still it seems this tradition did not catch on as an “annual” event until President Abraham Lincoln appeared on the scene and declared a celebration of “Thanksgiving Day” to be set on the final Thursday of each November in 1863 with the remark to-the-effect that “No human being could have planned or arranged for the bounty and great events that have created this great nation, except for the Almighty Hand of God.” Since 1863 Thanksgiving then, has been an annual part of our American Tradition that continued to evolve and change!
Much more that can be said in the early Post Civil War era with regard to “ragmuffin parades,” President Roosevelt moving “Thanksgiving Day” a week earlier in order extend the holiday shopping season to help us out of the 1930s Depression, how this was finally settled upon by Congress in 1941, how President John F. Kennedy pardoned the first turkey, and how Thanksgiving Day parades, college football games and the like came into the act!
My real point is this: To “Give Thanks” is one of the highest forms of worship and praise to God, hence it is not by accident that we call our own Catholic Mass, “Holy Eucharist” which in Greek means “Thanksgiving!” which we celebrate each week. Giving thanks is an essential part of the Spirit of God within us, and component of our own spiritual DNA! Giving thanks helps us be grateful, fills us with joy, and affirms our relationship with God as our Creator! It helps us look past our present difficulties and pains (esp. during these Covid-19 times) and look beyond, toward a new and better world to come! So for now, let’s just all just be thankful and realize that we all have been truly blessed in many ways May the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit continue to guide and anoint us! Words to live by: “Happiness is not a station you arrive at, but rather a manner of traveling.” “Happy Thanksgiving again to everyone! Fr. LeRoy Scheierl