We make much of our Thanksgiving holiday, which has become mostly about food and football – two of my favorite things – but which in many families also includes a prayer. When I was a Methodist kid, it was the only time of the year our family prayed at table, a sop to my visiting Presbyterian grandparents.
There is much to love about Thanksgiving – so much about which to be thankful. Besides food and football, there is also the fellowship of family and friends. Our sons are flying in: the younger from college in Ohio; the older from Fort Knox. It’s hard (and not a little painful) to realize that this time next year LT Miner will probably not be joining us. His unit’s rotation will likely deploy him to Iraq. (And, speaking of thanksgiving, I’ll be grateful if it’s not Afghanistan.)
Every year since 1961, the Wall Street Journal has republished Vermont Royster’s Thanksgiving editorial, one paragraph of which hits home at our house:
There is some dispute about where the Thanksgiving tradition began. The schoolbooks say in Plymouth, Massachusetts, 1621. The Puritans asked Chief Squanto and their other Wampanoag neighbors to join them in celebration of their very survival of a first, brutal year in the New World. But there was a Thanksgiving at Berkeley Hundred near Jamestown, Virginia three years earlier. The charter of those pilgrims read: “We ordaine that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually keept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”
And many now assert that the real first Thanksgiving was actually a Catholic Mass held in (take your pick) St. Augustine, Florida in 1565 or in San Elizario, Texas in 1598. Of course, none of these places was a state then – weren’t even American – just colonies-in-the-making, rocky coasts or swamps or deserts, although the gratitude expressed by these Americans-to-be indelibly imprinted our nascent national character.
The holiday itself was not fully a feature of civic life until Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation of 1863. To be sure, the Continental Congress and then presidents beginning with Washington and Adams had proclaimed days of Thanksgiving. Washington designated November 26, 1789 as a day for all Americans to: “unite in rendering unto [Almighty God] our sincere and humble thanks, for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation, for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his providence.”
But it was Mr. Lincoln, under the influence of writer Sarah Josepha Hale, who, in the midst of the darkest days of our great fratricidal conflict, established once and for all that Americans should yearly recall that our blessings “cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.” It remained only for Congress to firmly establish in 1941 that Thanksgiving should fall on the (usually) last Thursday of November. FDR’s signature made it a federal holiday.
And this little history certainly suggests that Thanksgiving is very much the principal feast day of what is sometimes called America’s civic religion – a day in which folks of all faiths (and no faith) recall the providential character of the American experiment. Some descendents of the earliest, pre-Columbian inhabitants of the continent consider Thanksgiving as a day of mourning. Other Americans will put their faith in the Packers to beat the Lions.
For my part, I stand in our living room and look out at the pink roses still blooming in the garden and the black squirrels scurrying across the lawn. Hardly the “desolate wilderness” described by Daniel Morton in 1620, “full of wilde beasts and wilde men.” Do the squirrels sense their Maker? Instinct propels them in pursuit of food and fecundity, their impulses interrupted only by the energetic yapping of a neighbor’s Yellow Lab. The squirrels, growing lazy in the short, chilly days, never pray.
I sigh and thank God I’m a father, a husband, a friend, an American, and a Catholic. Gratitude comes easily to me for what’s right before my eyes, but I have a somewhat harder time giving thanks simply for being, and as I stand staring out the south-facing window I close my eyes and look inward to the love of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit which spreads over me like the sunshine streaming through the panes of the tall mullion windows. I turn left, facing east, the light illuminating half my face, and with eyes closed find the Empty Place and truly, truly say with Saint Paul: “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!”
May God shed his grace on all Americans on this Thanksgiving Day.