At Your Service: Nov. 26, 2008
Thanksgiving is an extraordinary holiday and uniquely American. We all know the story of the first Thanksgiving: after a hard year on Massachusetts shores during which many lives were lost, in 1621 the surviving Pilgrims shared a celebratory harvest feast with their neighbors, the Wampanoags. It was a one-time expression of amazement that they had survived and gratitude that the abundance of the new harvest would enable them to make it through the cold, hard winter to come.
The next recorded celebration came 10 years later in February when the food supply had dwindled; corn was the only remaining food and it had been rationed to five grains per person. A day of fasting and thanksgiving was declared for Feb. 22; as the day ended, a ship full of provisions “miraculously” returned from England. This gave impetus to the need for regular Thanksgiving celebrations and led to the old New England tradition of serving five grains of corn at the beginning of the meal as a prelude to the prayer.
The holiday slowly grew in popularity, and made the transition from being a religious holiday when in 1776 the Continental Congress declared the holiday to boost morale. It was celebrated through the Revolutionary War, being declared anew each year, as a patriotic act. George Washington declared two Thanksgivings during his tenure as president as did others occasionally in the intervening years.
Several states celebrated the holiday regularly, but it was Abraham Lincoln, who in 1863 declared it a national holiday and set the date as the fourth Thursday in November. In the tradition of the holiday, Lincoln made the declaration as a means of uniting a divided nation around sentiment that were meaningful to both sides of the conflict. Following the Civil War, it was celebrated as a way of “healing the wounds of the struggle”.
In 1896 Edward Everett Hale, author of “The Man Without a Country,” wrote of the first Thanksgiving: “The Festival itself was a reminder that they had turned over a new leaf. It was a thick leaf, too, and nothing could be read which had been written on the other side.”
In the history of this nation, Thanksgiving has been used as a way to bring people together during hard times and in periods of transition. So, it is poignant that in the midst of our current crisis and the pending transition of presidential power, we find ourselves at the Thanksgiving table.
There is universal agreement that these are bad economic times that promise to get worse before they get better. Most of us are experiencing some form of belt tightening and share concerns about an already harsher than normal winter. Some are experiencing for the very first time fears about how they will make it through the weeks and months to come. Those who have been struggling for longer periods of time fear that they will never recover from their financial troubles.
More than wishful thinking
It is more than wishful thinking to say that there is still reason to give thanks. Even in these hard times, our poorest people have more than the middle class in many nations. When a similar situation arose in 1929, millions found themselves on bread lines and while the last leaf has not been turned on this crisis, steps are being taken to avert such dire outcomes.
Whether Barack Obama was your candidate or not, he will be our president. His election marks a significant transition as we move beyond some of the biases that previously left us divided creating new ways for us to work together. Times of change afford us all the opportunity to rise up to the challenges we face and find new strength and resolve. In the tradition of that very first Thanksgiving and so many that followed we come together as neighbors in hard times.
No matter who we are or what our circumstances, there is something for which we can be grateful. No matter how difficult the challenge we face as a nation the hard work and resilience that have always carried us forward will prevail. In our communities, we will create new ways of supporting the smaller “economy” that is simply local jobs and businesses. As people we renew our appreciation for those we love and with whom we share our lives.
Enjoy the time you share this holiday with those you care about and I will see you at the parade on Saturday.