Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Happy Thanksgiving

Do you have plans for Thanksgiving?  I’m looking forward to visiting my sister Jeannie in Missouri. I hope that you have plans with family and friends.

I learned in school that the first Thanksgiving was held by the Pilgrims in 1621.  I have later found out that it wasn’t quite true.

The Pilgrims did set apart a day to celebrate at Plymouth immediately after their first harvest, in 1621. At the time, this was not regarded as a Thanksgiving observance, but a harvest festival.  Harvest Festivals were existing parts of English and Indian tradition alike.  The English tradition of Harvest Festivals goes back to the Celtic celebration of Samhain which is of pagan origin.  There is evidence it has been important since ancient times.  It was the time when cattle were brought back down from the summer pastures and when livestock were slaughtered for the winter. At Samhain, it was believed that the gods needed to be propitiated to ensure that the people and their livestock survived the winter. Offerings of food and drink were left outside for them. The souls of the dead were also thought to revisit their homes seeking hospitality. Feasts were had, at which the souls of dead kin were beckoned to attend and a place set at the table for them. Other traditions involved people going door-to-door in disguise, often reciting verses in exchange for food.

When Christianity came to England the Christians sanitized the celebration turning it into a Harvest Festival.   Harvest is from the Anglo-Saxon word hærfest, which translates as autumn. It then came to refer to the season for reaping and gathering grain and other grown products. The full moon nearest the autumnal equinox is called the Harvest Moon. In ancient traditions Harvest Festivals were traditionally held on or near the Sunday of the Harvest Moon. This moon is the full moon which falls in the month of September.

One of the traditions was baking loaves of bread from the fresh wheat crop. These were given to the local church as the Communion bread during a special service thanking God for the harvest.  Harvest Festivals are still a part of British culture. Nowadays the festival is held at the end of harvest, which varies in different parts of Britain. Sometimes neighboring churches will set the Harvest Festival on different Sundays so that people can attend each other's festivals. Farmers celebrated the end of the harvest with a big meal called a harvest supper. Many churches and villages in England still have a Harvest Supper.

The celebration that we refer to as the first thanksgiving in the fall of 1621 was actually a harvest festival.  It was a bountiful feast, but the Pilgrims had grossly overestimated their harvest.  The only way they could possibly get through the winter was to cut in half the already meager weekly rations.   They struggled through the winter, but in May 1622, their food supply was completely gone and the harvest was four months away.

In desperation, Edward Winslow was sent 150 miles up the Maine coast to buy, beg or borrow whatever provisions the English ships there could spare.  Hearing the plight of this courageous little group, the captains were extremely generous. By the time Winslow returned, the settlers were literally starving.  The provisions were a godsend, but the long awaited harvest of 1622 was a dismal failure.  The Pilgrims had not yet perfected the art of growing corn; they had been busy building the fort and their lack of food that summer left them too weak and weary to tend the fields properly.  It seemed that they now faced the prospect of another year with little food.

Their hopes rested on a good fall harvest, but the harvest of 1623 was almost wiped out.  A six week drought began in June and the crops turned brown and were slowly withering away.  They turned to the only hope they had – intervention by God, and appointed a solemn day of humiliation and prayer. They assembled one July morning under a hot, clear sky and for nine hours prayed.  Their prayers were answered the next morning, and for the next two weeks said Winslow, "distilled such soft, sweet and moderate showers…as it was hard to say whether our withered corn or drooping affections were most quickened and revived".  Governor Bradford ordered that July 30,1623 be set aside as a day of public thankfulness.  That day of Thanksgiving was not a feast, but a solemn worship service thanking God for the rain.

The pilgrims were not the first Europeans to have a Thanksgiving celebration in America.  The first recorded Thanksgiving ceremony took place on September 8, 1565, when 600 Spanish settlers, under the leadership of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, landed at what is now St. Augustine, Florida, and immediately held a Thanksgiving ceremony for their safe delivery to the New World; there followed a feast and celebration.   As far as we know this was the first Thanksgiving celebration held in America.

Canadians also celebrate Thanksgiving.  The history of Thanksgiving in Canada goes back to an explorer, Martin Frobisher, who had been trying to find a northern passage to the Orient. In the year 1578, he held a formal Thanksgiving ceremony, in what is now the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, to give thanks for surviving the long journey.

This is how a Canadian explained it to me.  We did actually have the FIRST Thanksgiving, a full 43 years before the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, but, in true Canadian fashion, there was something wrong with it. That first North American Thanksgiving would have been "celebrated" in sub-zero temperatures on a barren, windswept moonscape by a muttering, mutinous crowd wondering whether "the chief" had all his marbles.

Sir Martin Frobisher set out to find the Spice Islands through the Northwest Passage. He landed instead on Baffin Island. The complete absence of trees and a pitiless terrain of unrelieved rock and permafrost barely dampened his determination to establish the first English settlement in North America. Ever the optimist, he spent two years mining "gold ore". When it was shipped back to England, it was found to be iron pyrite. Fool's Gold.

Throughout the history of the U.S. and Canada, Thanksgiving has been observed.  In the U.S. there has been an annual Thanksgiving observed since 1863.  In that year with the county involved in a horrific Civil War, President Lincoln issued the following proclamation declaring a day of Thanksgiving.

I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are 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 beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

One of the traditions of Thanksgiving is talking about the things we are thankful for.  There are many things, but I am truly thankful for my family, my friends, my country, my community, and especially for Jesus Christ and the grace that he shows me.

What are you thankful for this Thanksgiving?  Happy Thanksgiving y'all!

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