A couple of days before Halloween, I went into a grocery store and noticed they already had snowflakes painted on their windows. The frost is barely on the pumpkin before snowmen and colored lights greet us at every turn.
But wait—isn’t there another pretty important holiday in there somewhere? The one with the guys in funny black hats with big buckles on them—you remember—the Pilgrims. What about those cute turkeys made out of hand prints? Somewhere between feasting on candy corn at the end of October and the feasting on everything else at the end of the year, lies another feast. This feast, in the earlier days of our country, had nothing to do with parades, football, food…and certainly not shopping.
Like so many things in history, this day has a colorful—and at least at one point in time—a controversial story. A feast wasn’t always part of the day…just the opposite, in fact.
When the Pilgrims at Plymouth Plantation first celebrated, it was after a treacherous beginning in this new land. Many of them had not survived that first winter of 1620 due to illness, exposure and hunger—and a disastrous experiment with socialism. The Patuxet Indians had once inhabited the same area, but had been wiped out by a plague. There was, however, a lone survivor of the Patuxets named Squanto, who had been captured by an English explorer in the early 1600’s and taken to England where he learned to speak English. Captain John Smith took him back to New England in 1614, but he again was captured and sold into slavery in Spain.
As Divine Providence would have it, Squanto was then bought and rescued by some local friars in Spain who introduced him to Christianity. He ended up back in his homeland by 1619 to find his people were gone. Squanto adopted a new tribe, the Wampanoag Indians, and this was the tribe the Pilgrims partnered with to learn to make their way in a new environment. Chief Massasoit introduced them to Squanto, due to Squanto’s ability to speak English well. He was able to help the Pilgrims adjust, and Plymouth Governor William Bradford credited Squanto as being “an instrument of God” in helping the Pilgrims.
By the time the harvest of 1621 rolled around, things were much better, so Governor Bradford declared a day of Thanksgiving to give God His due for a successful harvest and for their friendship with the Wampanoag Indians. On that day Chief Massasoit and 90 of his men feasted with the Pilgrims on the fruit of the land. They enjoyed such delicacies as deer, eels (yuck!), fish, berries, popcorn and yes—turkey.
It wasn’t until 1863, when our young nation was in the midst of a civil war that President Abraham Lincoln established that the last Thursday of November should be set aside as a day of thanksgiving and fasting—not feasting—to humble ourselves and seek the face of God for direction and repentance. That’s quite a difference from today’s Thanksgiving. The holiday remained on that last Thursday for quite some time— until 1939, in fact.
It was then that Progressive Democrat President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (during his 3rd term in office) decided that there needed to be more time for shopping in between Thanksgiving and Christmas, so bowing to complaints from retailers, he moved it to the 3rd Thursday. Leave it to a Progressive to take the focus off of thanking God for His many blessings to shopping and commercialism. It’s interesting how the Republicans are always the ones that are said to be focused on money and gain, while the Democrats (in the minds of some) are for “the little guy”.
Back when President Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving, so many people were against it that the new day became known as the “Democrat Thanksgiving”, while the traditional 4th Thursday was referred to as the “Republican Thanksgiving”. Some states refused to celebrate it on the new date, while some followed suit. This confusion continued until 1941 when Congress declared that Thanksgiving should fall on the 4th Thursday of November.
So, I guess we can blame President Roosevelt for the insanity that became Black Friday, and the evolution of that in recent years to stores opening earlier and earlier to where many of them are not even closed at all on Thanksgiving Day.
If we really want to do this Thanksgiving thing right, we’ll take the feasting and thanksgiving of the Pilgrims and mix it with the prayer and humility of Lincoln’s time. Bringing these things into our own traditions would make us less likely to bypass this wonderful holiday. If anything, it can prepare us for the joyful celebration of Christmas and Christ’s birth to close out the old year, and usher in New Year’s Day with a new hope for the future.
Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!