I am thankful for Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is a rather uniquely American sort of holiday (they do celebrate Thanksgiving in Canada on the same day in October we recognize Columbus Day). Lots of countries have an independence day but only America has 4th of July. American Thanksgiving is as much historical and traditional as it is a religious holiday, so it is very much a way for Americans to connect to our collective past.
I am interested in many different things but my degree is in history and political science. In 2005 I was teaching a World History class and we were on a half day schedule getting ready to leave for the Thanksgiving break. I didn’t want to teach a regular lesson because that would put my 1st period class ahead of the others. So being we were in history class and it was the day before Thanksgiving, I thought we could spend some time having an elementary school review of the Pilgrims, the winter of 1620, the Native Americans and talk about why we observe the holiday. When one girl connected the dots and saw where I was going, she put her hand and burst out at the same time “Is this where we get the legend of Squatty Moto!?” I told her the name she was looking for was Squanto and suggested she had his name mixed up Quasimoto from the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Her Disney movie history was running together on her. (That’s a true story.)
You will hear people say that our country was founded on the principle of religious freedom. That fact is not untrue but at the same time that’s not the whole truth. By the time the colonies unified in their fight against England, and certainly by the time the Constitution was ratified in 1787, religious liberty was a defined right. But the original colonies were settled during the 1600’s for a variety of reasons. The Pilgrims and the Puritans (two separate groups) were seeking freedom from religious persecution, so colonies at Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay offered freedom from the Church of England but not actual religious freedom as we know it. Pennsylvania was founded by Quakers who offered the first true religious freedom of belief and practice. William Penn was a pacifist who did more than any other colonist to respect and include Native Americans. He apologized to native leaders for the behavior of other European groups. In contrast Virginia was chartered by a corporation. They came looking for gold but got rich instead harvesting brown gold, aka tobacco. Georgia was basically created by the crown as a buffer colony between the British and the Spanish, and populated with debtors from debtor’s prison and other opportunists.
The first Thanksgiving was celebrated after a successful harvest by the Pilgrims who were thankful namely to be alive but also for the prospects of surviving their second winter in the new world. They were religious separatists who had pulled out of the Church of England (rather than stay behind and try to purify it, i.e. the Puritans). Some critics point to the establishment of Thanksgiving as a national holiday as a recent event in history but the United States has only existed as a nation for a little over 200 years. Compared to many European countries we are still in our infancy. Giving thanks to God during this season ties us to the early history of our nation. It is a religious holiday of sorts, but not in the ancient ways that Christianity are marked by Easter and Christmas. Those are celebrated by over a billion Christians worldwide. Thanksgiving is special because it’s ours.
I am thankful to God who sustains life and all it’s many blessings. I am also thankful for a unique cultural heritage which still allows a great deal of religious freedom, including a national day of giving thanks. We are abundantly and richly blessed, as evidenced by our over-indulgence of turkey, stuffing, dressing, gravy, vegetables and pie. I am thankful for family and the opportunity to travel and see long distance loved ones. I remember Grandma’s house, weird uncles and football from childhood but as an adult have a different understanding of family.
Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours, may God continue to bless.