THE ISSUE: Today, Americans celebrate a ritual that goes back almost 400 years, though it was not formalized until 1863.
OUR VIEW: Among our many freedoms is the right to criticize, but today is an appropriate time to reflect on the positive.
All across America the wheels of commerce and industry grind to a halt today. Millions of us will spend the day quietly at home. Or not so quietly, depending on how many relatives and friends we’re sharing the day with.
Most of our 300 million citizens will put aside this day the tools of their trades, leave off for a time the hectic occupation of accumulating material possessions, and give thanks for the blessings in their lives.
It all began in 1621, when our Pilgrim Fathers in Plymouth Colony celebrated the gathering of their first crops. Although the first observance was more of a harvest celebration than a religious one, Thanksgiving Day soon took on religious aspects.
Edward Winslow, writing from Plymouth Colony to a friend in England about the first Thanksgiving in the New World, said:
“Our corne did prouve well, & God be praysed we had a good increase of Indian corne. The barly was indifferent good, although the pease not worth the gathering. So the Governor (William Bradford) sent foure men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoyce together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labours. They foure in one day killed as much fowle, as with a little helpe beside, served the Company almost a week. The Indians (who joined in the celebration) went out and killed five deere, which they brought to the Plantation.”
That first Thanksgiving apparently was held in October. It was natural for the Pilgrims to hold it after a good harvest, for harvest festivals had been customary in England.
The crops were bad the next year, so there was no reason to hold a special celebration. But another Thanksgiving was held in 1623, and thereafter special days were set aside in any month of the year that seemed appropriate. The Continental Congress called for one in December 1777, to celebrate the surrender of “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne and his Redcoats at Saratoga; and for another in December 1783, to mark the formal peace with England.
President Washington called for one in 1789 in honor of the new Constitution, and for another in February 1795 for the “happy course of our public affairs.” It was Abraham Lincoln who, issuing a proclamation on Oct. 3, 1863, instituted the custom of annual Thanksgiving Days in late November.
But the meaning of Thanksgiving is far more important than the day on which it falls. Although it started as a day of thanks for a bountiful harvest, as this young nation underwent the pains of fighting to remain free, its citizens came to realize that they also had many other things for which to be thankful.
Today, we can be thankful that we’re still a free nation and that as free citizens, we can attend the church of our choice and worship as we wish. Or not worship, if we choose.
We can be thankful that we’re free to speak and write as we like and to read what we want to read.
We can be thankful that we can stay at home and enjoy the comforts of the fireside, but that we’re also free to travel to any corner of the nation, or to leave it.
We can be thankful for the multitude of blessings that comes with living in a free society, not the least of which is the right to select our own government, as we once again demonstrated this month.
Free Americans spend a great deal of time criticizing things that are wrong — injustices and inequities of many descriptions — and properly so. But it is also quite fitting that the country has set aside a day to recognize the many things that are right. In that sense, we can all be thankful for Thanksgiving.
Canandaigua (N.Y.) Daily Messenger