Beyond the Myth of Thanksgiving
The myth of Thanksgiving has everything to do with the Pilgrims celebrating a joint feast with their neighbors, the Wampanoag people to offer thanks for a successful harvest. No Thanksgiving passes by in schools without a plethora of pilgrim costumes and vaguely western-looking Native American headdresses. Yet in some dim way, we know that Thanksgiving has not been continuously observed since that fall of 1621.
Thanksgiving was born out of revolution and civil war. Its history is perhaps more noble for its bloodstained roots than for its Pilgrim ideal.
The first thanksgiving was November 26, 1789 and it was created by proclamation of George Washington in thanksgiving for the establishment of the new government of the United States of America. That day was to be devoted “to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”
The Continental Congress and its President were thankful for the new nation but beyond that they also sought forgiveness. Washington’s proclamation said the nation was to, “beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions.” These are the words of a general who led troops in battle. He knew the price of the peace enjoyed by the new nation.
That first thanksgiving was a stand-alone event. From time to time other president’s issued similar proclamations for thanksgiving. We did not get a national day of thanksgiving as an annual event until the country was in the midst of the Civil War.
In 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation calling for the national holiday. It was this document which inaugurated Thanksgiving, though not as we now know it now. That proclamation, written by Secretary of State William Seward and signed by Lincoln, called for prayers for forgiveness as well as thanks.
Seward cited the better than usual harvest of 1863 and the continued progress of mines and the expansion of cleared territory to the west to all be signs of God’s Providence even in the midst of war. He wrote, “They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”
Yet this first true Thanksgiving holiday was also marked by a call for prayers of forgiveness. He asked of those gathered for the feast that they “do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation.”
No mention was made by Washington or Lincoln to that fall of 1621 when Pilgrims ate with Native Americans. It is not that the meal didn’t happen. It was just that those creating our national day of thanks made reference to revolution and civil war, not to the more idealized gathering of native and migrant populations joining for a common meal. The holiday remained the last Thursday of November until, as Europe was at war in 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt moved the observance to the fourth Thursday.
Later these annual feasts in thanks to God would look back to 1621 as the ideal template for Thanksgiving. The records of the Mayflower settlers record a three-day feast during which the Pilgrims provided the initial meal and the Wampanoag added to it with five deer killed during the course of the festival. People who could have been enemies sat together to share a meal. Tongue in cheek I should add that this image of potential combatants enjoying a meal may have more to do with our family gatherings than we would like to admit.
Yet beyond the myth of the first Thanksgiving being that Pilgrim meal, we find the truth of what two of our greatest leaders actually did. They each called the nation to give thanks to God for the good gifts of creation. They also asked for prayers for forgiveness for the ways in which we had dishonored that gift of God.
Thanking God for his goodness while asking for forgiveness for our disobedience were two sides of the same coin. Both were at the heart of what forged the desire for a national holiday following the Revolution and while in the midst of the Civil War.
When you join hands to give thanks this coming week, what would it be like to reinvigorate the “thanks” of Thanksgiving by also acknowledging what we have done with the gifts God has given us? I imagine this would make for a downer of a family meal. It wouldn’t be a practical switch from the more typical “What things from this past year are you thankful for?”
Setting the meal itself aside for the moment, how can we recapture that spirit of asking for forgiveness which was also the purpose to which Washington and Lincoln called us? For adding the prayer for forgiveness is what makes it possible for us to separate out the good gifts God has given us from the real pain and suffering we cause one another.
Beyond the myth of the first Thanksgiving being a noble feast we find a nation whose great leaders acknowledge both God’s gifts and our own shortcomings. Without beating ourselves up, we too can remember, “the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”
The above column was my contribution to Episcopal Life last November.
The Rev. Frank Logue, Pastor