Thanks, but No Thanks?
What Thanksgiving has come to mean in Our Modern Society and Culture
by David Hulme, www.vision.org
Very soon most Americans will take a holiday, ostensibly to give thanks. But most will likely give thanks, as they have in years gone by, by simply eating too much. It's an interesting contrast to a time when the original settlers observed their first Thanksgiving. In that first American society and culture there was less food, less security and less freedom than we have today.
Recognition of harvest plenty was in the background of the early settlers at the Plymouth Plantation, when they kept what we think of as the first Thanksgiving in 1621. Just under half of the Mayflower's contingent had associated together in Holland as part of a sect of the Puritans known as the English Separatist Church. Forty-six of the original 102 settlers died, but the harvest was good. And because the Indians had been particularly helpful, the two populations joined together for their first harvest celebration.
Though man's inhumanity to man is a profound ethical issue in religion, history is replete with examples of such oppression exerted in the interest of "divine right." The Separatists who also had such misconceptions, believed that the Indians were heathens. They saw themselves as having come to set up the Kingdom of God described in the Bible's book of Revelation. In the light of this idea, some historians have doubts about the sincerity of the first 'Thanksgiving Day.' Wampanoag accounts suggest that the Indians mistook the celebration activities for war preparations and at least 90 warriors came to the colony to investigate. Sadly, it took only a generation or so before the children and grandchildren of the first settlers and their Indian mentors were killing each other.
We may have assumed that Thanksgiving occurred in some communal way continuously after 1621. In fact, there was no Thanksgiving the next year, but in the summer of 1623 when a long drought broke after prayer, the governor proclaimed a special day to give thanks. Again the Indians were invited.
Another fifty-three years passed before the next publicly proclaimed Thanksgiving. In 1676, the Charlestown, Massachusetts council issued a proclamation declaring June 29th of that year as a day of thanksgiving for "reserving many of our Towns from Desolation . . . that the Lord may behold us as a People offering Praise and thereby glorifying Him." Again, it was a single day observed in a localized area.
However, in 1777, the 13 colonies joined together for the first time in celebration of a Thanksgiving when the Continental Congress issued a proclamation to set apart Thursday, December 18th as a day to acknowledge the nation's gratitude for success in "the Prosecution of a just and necessary war." In addition, the proclamation established the day as one of supplication to God, "to secure for these United States, the greatest of all human Blessings, Independence and Peace."
For the next several years (until 1784), a separate proclamation was issued yearly by the Continental Congress, establishing various dates in December as days to be set aside for prayer and Thanksgiving, "for the continuance of his favor and protection to these United States."
After several years during which no proclamations were issued, George Washington began a presidential tradition when he proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving in 1789. In the end, it was Sarah Josepha Hale, a magazine editor, who after many years of writing letters and editorials, finally succeeded in prompting President Lincoln to act. In 1863, he proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a national day of Thanksgiving. However, it still took until 1941 for Thanksgiving to be sanctioned by Congress as a legal holiday on the fourth Thursday in November.
As history attests, there are many twists and turns in the history of what we today regard as a lasting tradition with a religious foundation. And because human nature is what it is, there is often sadly a knot of human deceit and connivance at the heart of such institutions.
Gratitude and ingratitude are opposite poles: as opposite as right and wrong, good and evil. One of the ethical issues in religion is that it is easy to take our many blessings for granted, and to forget where they come from. Unfortunately, our society and culture has, in many cases, eliminated the God we say we are thanking on Thanksgiving Day. An attitude of thankfulness puts us in a humble frame of mind. It teaches us to whom we are in debt for all that we have. There is no room for pride when we are in the thankful mode.
In our modern society and culture the national holiday of Thanksgiving is again upon us. What will it mean to us this year?
Vision.org is a Web site that challenges readers to examine the historical, philosophical and ethical origins of today's issues. David Hulme is writer, editor and publisher for Vision Media.
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