Tomorrow is the formal day set aside for the secular holiday Thanksgiving. For many that means food, and I love the foods associated with Thanksgiving. It is a time of generosity as many people and groups make sure that everyone has something to eat at least on that day. For others the meaning of Thanksgiving may be the retail sales that come with bargains that are offered the day after Thursday on “Black Friday.”
As I have every year and this year as I am Chairman of the Jamestown-Yorktown Board of Trustees, I must proclaim that some believe that the first Thanksgiving occurred on December 4, 1619, when Captain John Woodlief and 35 Englishmen landed at what is now known as Berkeley Plantation. They immediately fell to their knees as the charter under which they were sailing required giving thanks to the good Lord for their safe passage from what had been a rough voyage and for the thousands of acres of pristine lands on which they were going to settle. More than a year later at Plymouth Settlement a festival occurred that included settlers and indigenous people in what is more often referred as the first Thanksgiving.
In neither instance has there been an appropriate recognition of the role of indigenous peoples who lived for thousands of years on the soil for which the first colonists were offering thanks. In the Virginia instance there was no mention of the indigenous people who had occupied the land for as many as 15,000 years before their arrival and of the tens of thousands who lived there when the English arrived.
Thanksgiving as a holiday on the fourth Thursday of November dates to a proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln on October 3,1863. Even in the midst of a civil war, Lincoln reminded the nation of “the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies” under the “providence of Almighty God.” Lincoln found that “a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity” had not “arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship” and “the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase in freedom … the gracious gifts of the Most High God.”
While we may continue to note the early celebrations in our history referred to as Thanksgiving, it is important that they be remembered within the context of the larger historical period in which they occurred. Within the more honest and complete view of our current history, the spirit of Lincoln should be with us as we celebrate Thanksgiving this year. Our institutions of democracy have been tested over the recent past as seldom before, and the threats to health and safety have been graver than ever before in our lifetime.
We need to remind ourselves and others that the blessings we ultimately enjoy are not simply of our own making but are as Lincoln reminded us “the gracious gifts of the Most High God” — by whatever name we may call that spirit!
Happy Thanksgiving to all!