It’s always been interesting to me, during this time of year, to hear people speaking of “being thankful”. Newscasters on TV will often say something about “being thankful”. Radio personalities will go on and on about how we all should “be thankful” for our health, our soldiers, our families, etc… But I never hear them say “WHO” we should be thankful to. The very idea of “being thankful” denotes that there is something… or better yet, someOne… we are to ‘thank’, right?
There are actually, numerous claims to the “first” Thanksgiving. One of the earliest recorded celebrations occurred a half-century before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth in 1621. A small colony of French Huguenots established a settlement near present-day Jacksonville, Florida. On June 30, 1564, their leader, Rene de Laudonniere, recorded that “We sang a psalm of Thanksgiving unto God, beseeching Him that it would please Him to continue His accustomed goodness towards us.” Interesting. Who was it they sang to? God.
In 1610, after a hard winter called “the starving time,” the colonists at Jamestown called for a time of thanksgiving. This was after the original company of 409 colonists had been reduced to 60 survivors. The colonists prayed to God for help that finally arrived by a ship filled with food and supplies from England. They held a prayer service to give thanks. Who did they pray to? God.
This thanksgiving celebration was not originally commemorated yearly. An annual commemoration of thanks came nine years later in another part of Virginia. “On December 4, 1619, 38 colonists landed at a place they called Berkeley Hundred (in Virginia). One of the instructions in their charter stated: “We ordain that the day of our ship’s arrival… in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.” Again… it was to be kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.
One of the greatest stories of thanksgiving is a story that began in 1605 when an Indian named Tisquantum, or Squanto, and four other Indians were taken captive, sent to England, and taught English to provide intelligence background on the most favorable places to establish colonies. After nine years in England, Squanto was able to return to Plymouth on Captain John Smith’s voyage in 1614. Not long after arriving, Squanto was lured and captured by a notorious Captain Thomas Hunt, along with 27 others, and was taken to Malaga, Spain, a major slave-trading port. Squanto, with a few others, were then bought and rescued by local friars and actually introduced to the Christian faith. He was able to attach himself to an Englishman bound for London, then he joined the family of a wealthy merchant, and ultimately embarked for New England in 1619. He stepped ashore six months before the Pilgrims landed in 1620. When he stepped ashore he received the most tragic blow of his life. Not a man, woman, or child of his own tribe was left alive! During the previous four years, a mysterious plague had broken out among them, killing every last one. So complete was the devastation that the neighboring tribes had shunned the area ever since. The Pilgrims had settled in a cleared area that belonged to no one. Their nearest neighbors, the Wampanoags, were about 50 miles to the southwest. Stripped of his identity and his reason for living, Squanto wandered aimlessly until he joined the Wampanoags, having nowhere else to go. But God had other plans. Massasoit, the chief of the Wapanoags, entered into a peace treaty of mutual aid with the Plymouth colony that was to last as a model for forty years. When Massasoit and his entourage left, Squanto stayed. He had found his reason for living: these English were helpless in the ways of the wilderness. Squanto taught them how to catch eels, stalk deer, plant pumpkins, refine maple syrup, discern both edible herbs and those good for medicine, etc. Perhaps the most important thing he taught them was the Indian way to plant corn. They hoed six-foot squares in toward the center, putting down four or five kernels, and then fertilizing the corn with fish: three fish in each square, pointing to the center, spoke-like. They would have to guard the fields against the wolves, who would try to steal the fish. By summer they had 20 full acres of corn that would save every one of their lives. Squanto also taught them to exploit the pelts of the beaver, which was in plentiful supply and in great demand throughout Europe. The Pilgrims were a grateful people – grateful to God for the Wampanoags, and also for Squanto. Governor Bradford declared a day of public Thanksgiving, to be held in October.
Massasoit was invited and unexpectedly arrived a day early – with an additional ninety Indians! To feed such a crowd would cut deeply into their stores for the winter, but they had learned through all their travails that God could be trusted implicitly. And it turned out that the Indians did not come empty handed: they brought five dressed deer and more than a dozen fat wild turkeys. They helped with the preparations, teaching the Pilgrim women how to make hoecakes and tasty pudding out of cornmeal and maple syrup. In fact, they also showed them how to make one of their Indian favorites: white, fluffy popcorn! The Pilgrims, in turn, provided many vegetables from their gardens: carrots, onions, turnips, parsnips, cucumbers, radishes, beets, and cabbages. Also, using some of their precious flour with some of the summer fruits which the Indians had dried, the Pilgrims introduced them to blueberry, apple, and cherry pie. Along with sweet wine made from wild grapes, it was, indeed, a joyous occasion for all concerned.
The Pilgrims and Indians happily competed in shooting contests, foot races, and wrestling. Things went so well, and because Massasoit showed no inclination to leave, that this first Thanksgiving was extended for three days. The moment that stood out the most in the Pilgrims’ memories was William Brewster’s prayer as they began the festival. They had so much for which to thank God: for providing all their needs and His provision of Squanto, their teacher, guide, and friend that was to see them through those critical early winters.
By the end of the 19th century, Thanksgiving Day had become an institution throughout New England. It was officially proclaimed as a national holiday by President Abraham Lincoln on October 3, 1863: “No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the most high God, who while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy… I do, therefore, invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday in November next as a day of Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”
Triaditionally celebrated on the last Thursday in November, Franklin D. Roosevelt changed the celebration to the third Thursday in November “to give more shopping time between Thanksgiving and Christmas.” At this point Congress enacted the ‘Fourth Thursday Compromise’. Ever since this pragmatic and commercial approach to Thanksgiving was promoted, its original meaning has steadily been lost. During this season… especially this time between Thanksgiving and Christmas… may you and I be those that remember that everything we enjoy comes from our Father in Heaven (James 1:17), and that they are all “the gracious gifts of the most high God“. Let’s all be sure to be thankful this day… to God.
Love you all. Happy THANKSgiving!