"Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored." -Aldous Huxley

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wThursday, November 24, 2005

SOMETHING TO BE THANKFUL FOR: You didn't have to write this. I threw a Thanksgiving number together in an hour or so at the request of the powers-that-be in my extended family to add to the festivities. We'll see how the reading goes:

Thanksgiving, by Fits and Starts

Thanksgiving is something old and something new. Traditionally, the first Thanksgiving has been traced back to the Pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in the fall of 1621, but there are earlier recorded large-scale celebrations of collective thanks to God for his blessings in what would become the United States of America.

Spokesmen in Florida, Virginia, and even Texas have all made the claim that people from their locales were really the first to give thanks. Massachusetts has jealously guarded its claim to number one. This year, the state attorney general threatened to bring criminal charges against a supermarket chain if it remained open today.

Anyway, about the Pilgrims' Thanksgiving. Just over 100 colonists arrived from Holland during the winter of 1620, very far north of where they had planned to land, on the western shore of Cape Cod Bay. The climate of Plymouth was not the greatest and at the end of the harsh winter half the Pilgrims were dead from cold, disease, and starvation. If they didn't bring in a bumper crop in 1621, they would have had to disband the colony and look for supplies and a better settlement.

For expertise on what to grow and how to grow it, new leader William Bradford turned to the Wampanoag "Indians" who told colonists what to plant, how to cultivate the ground, that sort of thing. On the advice of natives, the colonists grew ear upon ear of corn.

Farming wasn't the only thing that sustained them. They also learned how to fish for cod and to hunt local game. Wild turkeys, in particular, were then plentiful and easy to hit.

Come fall, the Puritans had one heck of a crop of corn and fish and other foodstuffs. Bradford declared a festival day to give thanks to God and invited several members of the Wampanoag to the three day celebration. They all ate plenty of corn, cod, turkey, and, I'm sure, cranberry salad.*

Pilgrims held other days of thanksgiving but it wasn't an annual occurrence. They held Thanksgiving-type feasts when things had gone well and there was a good crop to be thankful for. When things didn't go so well, they declared fasts, which might not be the worst advice for tomorrow.

President George Washington declared a "national day of Thanksgiving" in 1789 but it took President Lincoln to declare a permanent holiday in 1863, and people have been putting on five pounds in November ever since.

Lincoln decided that Thanksgiving should be celebrated in the final Thursday of November. It continued to be held on that day until President Franklin Roosevelt pushed it back a week in 1939.

Thanksgiving is much more than a nationalistic holiday because its roots predate the American nation. It goes back to our first colonists, and the people who were part of the land before that play more than a bit part. Lincoln issued his Thanksgiving proclamation in the middle of the Civil War but he tried to at least pretend that it wasn't propaganda.

The year that was almost over, Lincoln wrote, had been full of material blessings in the midst of hardship. The fields were "fruitful" and the skies remained "healthful" (i.e. temperate). He said that these "bounties" are so "constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come."

Lincoln expressed gratitude that the war and taxes that fueled the war effort "have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe ha[s] enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle field; and the country ... is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increases of freedom."

He continued:

"No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

"It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. 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."

To which I can only add, amen, and pass the mashed potatoes.

* Er, the Pilgrims didn't have cranberry salad, but it's an old family recipe and likely to get a laugh.

posted by Jeremy at 5:51 PM