"I awoke this morning with devout thanksgiving for my friends, the old and new."
Ralph Waldo Emerson, US essayist & poet (1803 - 1882)
Today is America's biggest holiday and feast. It is equivalent to our Christmas Day, when people travel from all over the country and world to break bread with family. Highlights include roast turkey, football and the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. This is my third Thanksgiving and I have never stopped to understand what it is really all about. So here goes.
"Pilgrims going to Church", George Henry Boughton
The timing and place of the original feast has been debated, but most agree it all started with the pilgrims of Plymouth Massachusetts in 1620. After a really harsh winter killed more than half the pilgrims that year, they decided to form a relationship with the local Wampanoag tribe. These Indians taught them about fishing, planting and hunting. By autumn of 1621, the pilgrims had collected enough food to feed the community through the coming winter. The Wampanoags joined them for a three day feast in celebration of their bountiful harvest. Historians are not sure that turkey was on this first menu, but certainly seafood, pumpkin (of course), corn and other autumn vegetables were.
"The first Thanksgiving", Jean Louis Gerome Ferri
For later generations, this holiday became less about the 1621 harvest festival and more about religion. Descending from the puritan days of fasting, prayer and giving thanks to God, every autumn the governors of each colony would declare days of thanksgiving for bountiful harvests, victorious battles and drought-ending rains.
In 1777, the Continental Congress decreed that all colonies celebrate a national day of thanksgiving in celebration of their victory over the British in Saratoga. By the mid 19th century, many states were celebrating the holiday. But the date would vary each year and between states. It was a magazine editor name Sarah Josepha Hale who was determined to set a national Thanksgiving Day, because she passionately believed such a day would help unite a country heading towards civil war.
Through a letter writing campaign, she urged politicians to establish such a holiday. Her efforts were rewarded in 1863 by Abraham Lincoln, who saw the merits in uniting the country. He declared the last Thursday in November to be Thanksgiving Day. This has been observed ever since.
There are plenty of Thanksgiving prayers and quotes that are used on this day, but perhaps the most simple and eloquent is a prayer/ poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson. I started this post with him, so it is only fitting to end with him as well:
For each new morning and its light,
For rest and shelter of the night,
For health and food,
For love and friends,
For everything Thy goodness sends.
Images: Norman Rockwell, American Gallery, Harper Library, Wikipedia