“Thanksgiving is a time when the world gets to see just how blessed and how workable the Christian system is. The emphasis is not on giving or buying, but on being thankful and expressing that appreciation to God and to one another.”
It is the Thanksgiving story we all learned long ago.
As Kindergarten or first-grade students, we were told a simple history lesson about America’s first Thanksgiving in 1621 at Plymouth, Massachusetts. There were colonists from England and a tribe of Native Americans. And we were told they shared a common table, feasted for three days, and gave thanks for a season’s harvest.
Since then, history tells us much more about that first Thanksgiving and what came afterward. Regretfully and tragically, it’s not all simple and good.
It was the colonists, not the local tribes, who had the most to be thankful for that year. After arriving from England in late 1620, all of the colonists aboard the Mayflower reportedly nearly perished during that winter from starvation, exposure and disease.
Thankfully, that next spring, the local Wampanoag tribe taught the pilgrims how to hunt, fish and grow crops in the New World. The first Thanksgiving nearly 400 years ago celebrated the colonists’ first successful corn crop.
Depending on one’s perspective, history doesn’t shed the most positive light on what followed. As more colonists arrived on the east coast from England and elsewhere, the goodness and peace from that initial Thanksgiving didn’t last. Tensions rose as the colonists tried to impose their way of life on the Wampanoags. Matters turned worse when they tried to impose their brand of justice on the tribe. For details on what happened next, read the history of King Philip’s War.
Yet despite that bloody war, and all the battles between Native Americans and immigrants that followed, the spirit of that first Thanksgiving has prevailed. Colonies and states celebrated some form of Thanksgiving well into the 1800s. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that a national day of Thanksgiving be held on the last Thursday of November.
That custom held for nearly 80 years until President Franklin D. Roosevelt changed it to always land on the fourth Thursday, supposedly to help lengthen the Christmas shopping season for a national economy mired in the Great Depression.
Roosevelt’s action could be considered as one of several tipping points in which Thanksgiving began to lose its original religious significance. Today, the holiday is still cherished by Christians as a time of giving thanks. But it also represents for many Americans just a holiday to share a huge turkey with family and friends — and watch NFL football on HD TV and shop for Christmas after the pumpkin pie.
With Thanksgiving only two days away, it is hoped that all of us never lose sight of the holiday’s original intent, which is perhaps said best by the late businessman and philanthropist Sir John Templeton.
“How wonderful it would be if we could help our children and grandchildren to learn thanksgiving at an early age. Thanksgiving opens the doors. It changes a child’s personality. A child is resentful, negative — or thankful. Thankful children want to give, they radiate happiness, they draw people.”
How wonderful that tends to be the case for adults, too.