Is our national observance of Thanksgiving a religious holiday? Where is it mostly celebrated? When did it start? What are some of the ways we observe Thanksgiving?
In answer to the first question, it is a civil holiday. Now set by action of Congress, the fourth Thursday of November is set aside as a day for our nation to give thanks. Of course for us who believe in God, thanking God for our many blessings is at the heart of Thanksgiving. But unlike, say Easter or Passover, Christmas or Ramadan, it is not set by one’s faith community but rather by the government.
Again many churches will reach out with missions to feed the hungry, have a special service on the day or perhaps the night before, but at the heart of the day it is a national tradition.
This Fourth Thursday of November is a holiday largely in the United States and Canada. Other nations have times of thanksgiving but not this day. The timing is tied largely to the early roots of our nation. Most will say it started in Plymouth, MA., in 1621, when following the colony’s first harvest, they had a meal where 53 pilgrims were joined by 90 Native Americans. The pilgrims were the immigrants who had come because of religious persecution in their homeland.
Surviving in the new land had been a real challenge. But now they gathered to praise God even in hard times.
Other claims for the first come from the 16th Century in some of the Spanish Colonies and others from 1610 from the Jamestown Colony in Virginia. But without a doubt the best PR department was in Plymouth. I think most everyone agrees that the traditions of Plymouth are what we remember. I reminded of a story that allegedly came out of a Town Hall meeting in Plymouth, when they discovered they had the wrong date for the landing of the Pilgrims. Someone stood and said, “Sir, we prefer establish error to novel truth.”
Thanksgiving did not become a national holiday until 1863, when by Presidential Proclamation; President Lincoln called for the nation to pause for a day of thanksgiving. As with the folks at Plymouth, the times were hard times. This proclamation came when the outcome of the War Between the States was still an open question. Thousands were dying in the bloodiest war our country has ever fought. But to give thanks is not limited to when everything is going our way.
During the 1930’s we got caught up in a national debate about which Thursday Thanksgiving actually fell on. As you are well aware the shopping season is thought to start at Thanksgiving for Christmas. And the logic was if you extended the season a week it would increase business. That idea proved not to work and as we entered the 1940’s Congress and President Roosevelt agreed it would fall every year on the fourth Thursday of November. The truth is the shopping season seems to start earlier and earlier. For a while some called the season “Hallowmas” as it seemed to start with Halloween. Now we see it seem to start as soon as Labor Day is over.
One of the traditions of Thanksgiving is “Black Friday”. For years I thought the name came from the fact it is so dark when you get up to start the day of “madness”. But the name comes from the fact that for many businesses it is when they reach the point in sales that will take them out of the red for the year. We have seen the day start for some stores by 6:00 a.m. on Thursday. It is a pity that we lose such an important day to try to expand sales. I think that early starts will prove as ineffective as moving back the Thursday celebrated for a week.
Of course food is an important part of Thanksgiving. Turkey is at the heart of most menus whether roasted, fried, or smoked. Others may turn to ham, duck, chicken, or beef. One issue that divides some households is whether you serve dressing or stuffing with the turkey. I must confess I enjoy both. Then there is a wide variety of vegetables, especially the green bean casserole . And for desert there is the traditional pumpkin or pecan pie. But the most important part of the menu is the fellowship around the table with family and friends.
In the morning, as some are busy in the kitchen, many will watch the Macy’s Parade from New York. Started in 1924, this year it will have a local touch with two members of the Pride of Eastside Marching Band, Austin Barnet and Reid Waters, being a part of the Macy’s Great American Marching Band. They were among the eleven chosen from Georgia. As the afternoon wears on, some will turn to television and football. The pros come first with games from Detroit and Dallas. That evening the college games are TCU vs. Texas, and LSU against Texas A.&M.
One of the traditions my grandchildren have added is about giving thanks. A ceramic pumpkin is filled with slips of paper each listing something you are thankful for. At the end of the meal it is passed around and when it is your turn, you take one out and read it and those around the table try to guess who said it.
May you have a blessed Thanksgiving as we pause as a nation to give God thanks.
B. Wiley Stephens is a retired United Methodist Minister and author who now resides in Covington