As we prepare to enjoy that most family-centric of all American holidays, it really is a time to count our blessings. What I love about Thanksgiving is that it is blissfully free of the angst that often pervades what we euphemistically call the “holiday season.”
What better way to ready for the traditional feast than to look back at its antecedents—all the way back to pagan days—to examine the rich strands that have gone into what we know as just “Thanksgiving.”
While the rites and practices have changed over the years, the central theme of celebrating the “fruits of the earth” has not.
It was the early Christian church fathers in Rome that did such a skillful job of purloining the pagan practices of the past, unblushingly renaming them and adapting to their own use.
The idea of breaking bread together today is ancient, dating back to “loaf mass,” an annual ritual to bless bread made from fresh wheat. The pagans had an animistic belief that there was a spirit in grain that had to be beaten out of the last sheaf of grain.
The festivals usually occurred around the autumn equinox in September, when fruits and vegetables had been gathered to provide food for the winter.
By the 16th century, a number of customs had sprung up—some brought to America by English settlers, first to Virginia, then to Massachusetts.
To the annoyance of the northern state—that for years had prided itself on being the site of the first Thanksgiving on American soil—and to the not-so-quiet satisfaction of its southern neighbor—a group of English settlers led by Capt. John Woodlief had landed more than a year earlier at today’s Berkeley Plantation southwest of Richmond.
Without fanfare, the sea-weary settlers gave thanks and prayers for their safe passage. They vowed to keep the day of their arrival perpetually as a holy day of thanksgiving, which they did for two years.
Unfortunately, they were attacked by the Powhatan tribe in 1622, killing almost 350. Although Woodlief survived, the plantation was abandoned, and the history of that first “day of thanksgiving” was lost for more than 300 years.
The first Virginia Thanksgiving Festival was instituted in 1958, and has been celebrated ever since. President John F. Kennedy acknowledged Virginia’s rightful claim through his speechwriter Arthur Scheslinger Jr.—who “pleaded an unconquerable New England bias on the part of the White House staff … I can assure you the error will not be repeated in the future.” In 2007, President George W. Bush, also noted that history. On a visit to Berkley Plantation, he wryly noted “… this version of events is not very popular up north.”
And, for most Americans, it is the more familiar Plymouth, MA, version, involving turkey and friendly Indians, that usually springs to mind—citing the first giving of thanks by the remaining 53 pilgrims left alive on the Mayflower after her long voyage from England in 1621.
Feasting, rather than prayers, was the order of the day, according to the customs brought from England, where celebration of the autumn harvest was an annual ritual. The menu would have borne little resemblance to today’s feast, more likely fowl or deer, possibly wild turkeys, mussels, grapes, herbs and corn. And the bird itself—the centerpiece of today’s celebration—wasn’t formally associated with the holiday until the 1840s.
In wasn’t until 1863, that President Abraham Lincoln supported legislation to make the day an annual national holiday in hopes of helping to unify the bitterly divided country.
As a child growing up in rural England, where medieval churches still abounded, I remember the excitement of the annual “Harvest Festival,” when everyone turned out to decorate the church—filling every nook and cranny with flowers, fruits, vegetables, grasses and tree branches.
The real “gift” of the November holiday lies in the act itself—the coming together in the old-age custom of preparing and cooking food, catching up on friends and family news, and, more recently, watching football.
Thanksgiving is the day where we realize, and refresh ourselves, in the importance of family relationships.