THE HISTORY OF
A man I know once said, “I feel sorry for atheists on Thanksgiving because they have no one to thank.” The pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 knew they had someone to thank, since one of their motives in coming to the new world was their desire for religious freedom. Like the chosen people of the Bible, they came to a land full of promise and they soon recognized their debt to God by beginning our custom of Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving traces its origins back to the year 1621 when the governor of New England, Governor Bradford, declared that people should celebrate Thanksgiving to thank God for helping them make it through another year in this new land they called America. You see, they really had a rough time. Lots of people had gotten sick, and lots of people had died. They had all kinds of trouble growing food. It got so bad, that at one point each of the Pilgrims only had five little kernels of corn to eat each day. If it wasn’t for the help of the Native Americans, they wouldn’t have survived.
The people knew that God had been watching over them and helping them, too. So Governor Bradford said that all the people should come together to praise God and thank God for taking care of them. He sent four men to go out into the woods to bring back some meat for a big meal. The men came back with all sorts of wild birds, mostly wild turkeys. And that is how turkey came to be on our tables today.
The Native American people came to the first Thanksgiving dinner too. They brought the popcorn. They used all kinds of corn in different ways and they were the first to discover you could pop some of them. At the first Thanksgiving dinner, to remember how they only had five kernels of corn to eat each day, each Pilgrim put five kernels on his plate. After that, every year, they put five kernels of corn on the table to remind them of all the good things God had done for them. Unfortunately, we have lost that tradition of putting five kernels of corn on the table.
This day of public praise and prayer spread throughout the English colonies. After the independence of our nation, President George Washington, at the request of congress, proclaimed the first national observances on Thursday, November 26, 1789. It is now traditional for the president to publish a Thanksgiving Day proclamation each year.
Thanksgiving is the only American holiday which is fundamentally religious in character. Now considering the current exaggerated, if not simply erroneous, interpretation of the first amendment, it is extremely unlikely that this official observance could have been inaugurated in our own times. The dictum about the “separation of church and state,” a modern invention found nowhere in the Constitution or its amendments, would have been raised against such an attempt. Fortunately, the custom of Thanksgiving Day is now firmly established as part of American life.
The Church in America, however, was very slow in giving any official recognition to the day. For many years, devout Catholics went to church on this day only to find that the Mass was being celebrated in memory of St. Cecilia or some other saint. Now, we have been given a moving and beautiful Mass of Thanksgiving with a true American flavor.
Some Catholics may wonder why the Church herself does not have in her liturgical calendar a day set aside for giving thanks. The reason she does not is that every Mass, every Eucharist, is an offering of thanks and praise to God for all his wonderful works in the history of salvation, the mystery of Christ, which is ever present and active among us. And, yet it is appropriate that as Americans we celebrate this special day of Thanksgiving, provided it does not reduce us to a mentality of nationalism and complacency, but reminds us of our responsibility to each other.
The proper spirit of the day was indicated by George Washington in his first Thanksgiving proclamation wherein he not only set aside a ‘day of public Thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God,” but also urged the people to “beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions, to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and to grant to all mankind a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.”
Our government proclaims, although it doesn’t always practice, the phrase “In God we Trust.” Today, both as Catholics and as Americans we are here to proclaim throughout this country of ours what God has done for us. We indeed have much to be thankful for, but above all, we should be thankful that we have Someone to thank.