Many of us are starting this week with a light heart. Most employees will have Thursday and Friday as holidays to celebrate Thanksgiving. Somehow, this holiday that we were taught was a special time to express our gratitude for the blessings of life has become the extended shopping weekend for Christmas, something which is neither appropriate nor complimentary of the day. We owe more than we can ever pay to those who were involved in the celebration of the first Thanksgiving – the least we can do is make the time to remember them.
Archeologists tell us that most people through time have believed in taking the time to show appreciation for the harvest. In some cultures, it was an annual festival, in others, it was more of a periodic celebration. The first harvest feast to be held by the European settlers in the new land was held in the fall of 1621. The Plymouth colony had lost forty six of its original one hundred two settlers in a hard winter. The land was not what they were led to believe it would be, and their traditional farming methods were not successful. The natives of the area had been involved with farming for generations, and were kind enough to share their techniques with the newcomers. As a result, the harvest was better than was expected. Harking back to earlier traditions, the colonists planned a three day feast. While turkey is normally considered to have been the prey of the four men Governor Bradford sent fowling, it is unlikely. The term “turkey” included all edible fowl of the day, not just the bird that was once considered for our national symbol. The rest of our traditional dinner was either scorned by or not available to the colonists. Potatoes of any sort were considered by most people to be poisonous. The supply of flour brought from England was long gone, so the pies, cakes and white breads that we think of as part of the feast could not be made. These would have been replaced with boiled squash, watercress, berries, fish, lobster and clams. Certainly a different menu than most of us anticipate!
The feast was not set up to be an annual one. In 1623, after a rain finally broke a long drought, a one day celebration of Thanksgiving was held. Again, the Indians were invited, but, typical of the people making up the colony, more time was spent in prayers and sermons than games and feasting. The first proclamation of thanksgiving was made in June, 1676. Passed by the governing council of Charlestown, Massachusetts, it proclaims June 29 to be a “day of Solemn Thanksgiving and praise to God for such Goodness and Favour, the many Particulars of which might be Instanced” held for the purpose of “as a People, offering Praise.” Again, this was a one time celebration, intended to show appreciation for the establishment of the colony at a time when the natives and nature seemed to be conspiring to prevent the continued existence of Charlestown.
Formal celebrations of Thanksgiving then disappeared until 1777 when all thirteen colonies celebrated their victory over the British at Saratoga. Once the nation was formed, and Washington elected her leader, there was discussion of an annual observance. Both Washington and Jefferson opposed it, seeing it as commemorating the hardships of a few Pilgrims. The matter rested there until 1863.
President Lincoln was a talented man, and one whose time in office was plagued with many affairs that changed the course of our nation. Most people are unaware that the celebration of Thanksgiving was started by him, at the urging of Sara Josepha Hale. In October of 1863, President Lincoln issued the following proclamation:
“We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no other nation has ever grown.
But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined in the deceitfulness of our hearts that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace – too proud to pray to the God that made us.
It has seemed to me fit and proper that God should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people.
I do, therefore, invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our benevolent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
This Thanksgiving finds thousands of our citizens overseas; some serving in the military or on ships, others involved in maintaining diplomatic relations with other nations. Some are working for private companies, but many are there at the behest of their government. Many are in situations that are not safe. Yet Thanksgiving is so deeply engrained in the American people, that each will spend some time remembering our nation, and why they serve. We have even more to be thankful for than did the Americans to whom Lincoln was speaking. How sad he would be to realize that, for many, the days will be spent, not in thanksgiving, but in shopping. Let us take the time to come together in thanksgiving for our blessings for at least one day.
Lisa Peterson is the County Attorney for Nolan County. Comments about this column may be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org .