November 22, 2012
When the English came to America in the 1600s they brought with them a new custom, hardly a generation old.
Before the Protestants supplanted the Catholic Church in England there were nearly 100 Church holidays, not including Sundays. Each holiday required church attendance of some sort, taking time away from the necessary pursuits of individuals to attend to the requirements of the Church. In 1536, religious reforms reduced the holidays to 27, plus Sundays, but the Puritans of the Church of England thought the reforms too accommodating. They advocated an elimination of all Church holidays, including the celebrations of Easter and Christmas, to be replaced with Days of Fasting and Days of Thanksgiving; celebrations to thank God for sparing them from disasters (Fasting) and for granting success (Thanksgiving).
Thanksgiving celebrations were not just for granting bountiful harvests; days of Thanksgiving celebrated military victories as well (in the New World those victories were often over the vanquishing of native populations).
The colonists at Jamestown celebrated a thanksgiving service soon after arriving on the shores of Virginia, and the first documented Thanksgiving was held in 1610. The Charter of Berkeley Hundred, a settlement up the James River, required that Dec. 4, be kept as “a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.” (The settlement was established on Dec. 4, 1619.)
The modern American tradition of Thanksgiving, though, traces its cultural roots to a feast at the Pilgrim settlement of Plymouth Plantation in 1621. As recorded in the accounts of two settlers, it was a celebration of a good harvest, and was attended by members of the Wampanoag tribe as well.
The conclusion of harvest in the fall of 1621 earned a thanksgiving. The Pilgrims had arrived on the Mayflower on Nov. 21, 1620. The first winter was severe, only 47 colonists, of the 102 who departed Plymouth, England survived, and of those 47, only seven were healthy enough to hunt, and the Wampanoag supplemented the food of the settlers. When warmer weather arrived, and they were still alive, they planted their first crops.
The Pilgrims made a tradition of the celebration, and other colonial communities had their own thanksgivings. But we remember that feast for what we want it to say about us, a day (actually three days) where we thank God, we embrace those who are different from us, and we celebrate our good fortune to be in America.
Thanksgivings have been a part of the American culture since the first colonists dug their fingers into the soil and determined to shape it to their will. George Washington declared a Thanksgiving in 1777 after winning the Battle of Saratoga. Rep. Elias Boudinot, after the House of Representatives voted for the First Amendment to the Constitution, proposed a national day of Thanksgiving. President Washington, on Oct. 3, 1789, President Washington proclaimed a Thanksgiving Day.
We trace our current national celebration to the proclamation of a national Thanksgiving Day to President Abraham Lincoln, who declared the final Thursday of November in 1863 as a day to be thankful for the deliverances and bounties of the year. We have celebrated a national Thanksgiving since then.
Yet for all the history, the shared traditions, it seems no holiday is as personalized as Thanksgiving. Perhaps it is because that despite the fact that it has become mythologized, it is a holiday that has stayed remarkably true to its intent; a day to be thankful, that regardless of the travail, we have much to be thankful for, to look forward to, and friends and family with whom to celebrate.
Or perhaps it is because Thanksgiving is celebrated in November, the best of months, as Robert Ruark wrote in my favorite book, “The Old Man and the Boy:”
“A lot of people figure November to a middling sad kind of month, with trees showing naked against the leaden skies late in the afternoon, and the grass all crisp and brown from frost, and the threat of winter turning your ears red in the morning, and the evening cold making your nose run. The year has only one more month to live, and that is sad, too, to some people.
“… the Old Man said, … He said, he would pick November as the best one, because it wasn’t too hot, and wasn’t too cold, and you could do practically anything in it better than any other time of the year, except maybe get sunburnt or fall in love.
“… ‘But mainly the reason I like November best is that it reminds me of me.’”