Thanksgiving became a national holiday in 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln designated the final Thursday in November for “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a law making the fourth Thursday in November the federal holiday. A national day of thanksgiving had been championed in the 19th century by Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, a New Hampshire native who was editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, an influential women’s magazine before the Civil War. Noting that states were celebrating Thanksgiving holidays on various days, Hale wrote to Lincoln: “You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritive fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.” Thanks to Hale and Lincoln, it became just that.
This is our second Thanksgiving of the COVID-19 pandemic. So our first thoughts go today to all those who are missing loved ones around the Thanksgiving table.
May their memories be a blessing.
We are grateful to science for giving us safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines, so that many of us can be together with our families today. For those families who are waiting until their youngest children can be vaccinated, we understand the difficulty of waiting; some of us are waiting, too.
We know that for many American families, the meal on today’s table will be pricier than usual. And some American families will rely on the kindness of strangers for their meals today. We’re grateful that such kindness exists, and that places of worship and organizations like the Lancaster County Food Hub, the Columbia Food Bank and the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank exist to channel it to those who need it.
We are deeply grateful for the doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists and emergency medical technicians who will work today, in the 21st month of this pandemic, to care for people with COVID-19 and other serious illnesses.
We are grateful for other first responders, too.
And we’re grateful to live in this amazing country. It is not perfect. We are struggling now to hold onto democracy and to figure out how we should teach children about our past. In both respects, truth must be our guide.
The stories we were told as children about Thanksgiving, for instance, cannot be reconciled with the reality.
Native Americans remember the harvest celebration the Wampanoags shared with the Pilgrims 400 years ago as a tragic mistake. They consider Thanksgiving a day of mourning for their Native American culture, which was nearly erased by white settlers, and for their predecessors, who died of infectious diseases the settlers brought from Europe.
“For us, Thanksgiving kicked off colonization,” Darius Coombs, a Mashpee Wampanoag cultural outreach coordinator, told The Washington Post. “Our lives changed dramatically. It brought disease, servitude and so many things that weren’t good for Wampanoags and other Indigenous cultures.”
In its story about the Wampanoags, the Post noted that the Native Americans did teach the Pilgrims how to plant beans and squash.
But as Francis J. Bremer, professor emeritus of history at Millersville University, wrote in a column published in the Sunday LNP Perspective section, the Wampanoags may not have been invited to the 1621 harvest celebration in Plymouth, Massachusetts. One theory is that they heard the firing of guns by the English and, led by their chief (or sachem) Ousamequin, they came to investigate.
Only then did they join in, Mashpee Wampanoag author and educator Paula Peters told The Washington Post. The Wampanoags contributed five deer; there was also “fowl, fish, eel, shellfish and possibly cranberries from the area’s natural bogs,” the Post noted.
As Bremer noted in his column, the harvest celebration held 400 years ago in Plymouth likely wasn’t the first Thanksgiving.
In that period, Bremer wrote, “Thanksgiving celebrations were commonplace. At that time, virtually all Europeans recognized no boundary between the material and the spiritual. Everyone saw a supernatural dimension to the events of everyday life and acknowledged this by offering thanks to God for personal blessings such as the birth of a child, the recovery of a loved one from illness, or a successful harvest.”
The details of the 1621 harvest celebration remain uncertain.
The Washington Post noted that historians and educators believe that “Ousamequin, often referred to as Massasoit, which is his title and means ‘great sachem,’ faced a nearly impossible situation. ... His nation’s population had been ravaged by disease, and he needed to keep peace with the neighboring Narragansetts. He probably reasoned that the better weapons of the English — guns versus his people’s bows and arrows — would make them better allies than enemies.”
So he made contact with the English in the spring of 1621. We’d like to say the rest is history, but so much of it has been obscured by myth.
What we know is that, as Bremer wrote, the Native Americans would have recognized the Pilgrims’ harvest celebration as one of thanksgiving. They “too, believed that divine powers shaped their fortunes. They had their own rituals, which included feasting and exchanges of goods at the time of the corn harvest.”
We can celebrate this day as Sarah Josepha Buell Hale described it in one of her novels: “(It) is considered as an appropriate tribute of gratitude to God to set apart one day of Thanksgiving in each year; and autumn is the time when the overflowing garners of America call for this expression of joyful gratitude.”
She fought so hard for a national Thanksgiving because she wanted to unite the nation as the specter of civil war loomed. As she wrote, “Everything that contributes to bind us ... together, to quicken the sympathy that makes us feel from the icy North to the sunny South that we are one family, each a member of a great and free Nation, not merely the unit of a remote locality, is worthy of being cherished. ... We believe our Thanksgiving Day, if fixed and perpetuated, will be a great and sanctifying promoter of this national spirit.”
Let it be so.