A National “Day of Thanks”—The Dream and the Reality
SARAH J. HALE had a dream. It launched her on a thirty-six-year “crusade” before she gained victory. The dream? As she wrote in September of 1863—to see established a “yearly Thanksgiving as a permanent American National Festival which shall be celebrated on the last Thursday in November in every State of the Union.”
Being the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, “her editorials reached the largest number of people of any periodical in the [United States].” Sarah’s campaign was vigorous. She wrote hundreds of letters to government officials and prominent citizens.
Usually, Mrs. Hale receives the credit for influencing President Abraham Lincoln to issue his Thanksgiving Proclamation on October 3, 1863. Although acknowledging the raging civil war, Lincoln spoke of the “blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.” He noted “the advancing armies and navies of the Union,” the growth in industry and population, and concluded that these “great things . . . are the gracious gifts of the most high God.” Lincoln, therefore, declared a nationwide “day of thanksgiving.”
But what type of festival had the president nationalized? Why did some resist the idea? And what has become the reality of this dream? The answers to these questions form a revealing story.
How Did It Begin?
Ask any North American schoolboy where Thanksgiving comes from and you will probably hear a story about Pilgrims, Indians and a turkey dinner that they shared. While basically legendary, a few elements of the tale seem to be historical.
In the year 1620, a small English colony was established on the edge of a vast and hostile wilderness. During the first winter they lost nearly half their number due to disease and severe weather. Autumn of 1621, however, saw a good corn crop. Therefore, a holiday—a three-day festival—was declared.
The colony was comprised of a religious group known as the Saints, and other residents whom the Saints called the Strangers. The latter were in the majority and were mostly people seeking economic opportunities in America. One could hardly find a more unlikely conglomerate for establishing a religious festival. Why? Because, unlike the Strangers, the Saints were basically anti-celebration! A little background will help us to understand.
The Saints, historically dubbed the Pilgrims (‘devout travelers’), had sprung doctrinally from the Puritans. The Puritans were Protestants who wanted to “purify” the Church of England of what they considered to be ‘popish tapestries.’ Some gave up and became Separatists. Many Separatists, including the Saints, fled England for religious freedom.
Thus the Saints were Puritans at heart. And Puritan teachings strongly opposed what were considered to be pagan traditions that had “crept” into Catholicism and the Church of England. They condemned most of the celebrations then popular in Europe. In fact, a historian of the early Thanksgiving holiday says: “One of the potent influences which aided its general acceptance in these colonies was the Puritanic hatred of Christmas as a relic of ‘Popish mummery.’”
So what kind of three-day festival did the Pilgrims allow? While myths abound, the few facts available from early records indicate that besides a formal march, the settlers “exercised” or displayed their ability with firearms. Then the ninety or so Indian “guests” (possibly uninvited) apparently exhibited their prowess with bow and arrow. There was, of course, much feasting.
The menu on the occasion is disputed. It is generally agreed that the Indians brought five deer, adding venison to the fare. However, the presence of the celebrated dish of modern Thanksgiving—turkey—is not clearly established. Do the brief references to “fowl” include not only duck and geese but also wild turkey? Legend has it so.
It is interesting to note that the following year no such holiday was held. The crops bad, the problems many, the Pilgrims felt that there was little to celebrate. In actuality, it is doubted that the Pilgrims would have instituted a yearly celebration, since they believed in a more spontaneous show of thanks, prompted by immediate signs of well-being.
An Earlier Origin?
Was this the beginning of a holiday now observed by millions? Many feel so, but others favor another view. How so?
While admitting that the present celebration has some connection with the Pilgrims, where did these get the idea of a thanksgiving festival? Historians note that ‘harvest festivals’ were among the oldest known holidays. And there were several different harvest celebrations in existence at the time of the Pilgrims.
Of special interest is the fact that the Pilgrims did not flee directly from England to North America. They first fled to Holland. Although religiously free there, they were disappointed with the industrial way of life, the “new” language and their economic circumstances. So from Holland they sailed on The Mayflower to the “New World.” But, argue some, the time in Holland would have brought them in touch with European harvest festivals.
We do know that special celebrations over good harvests had occurred in several of the early American colonies. Hence, the 1621 celebration was not unprecedented.
Eventually this holiday was observed annually in the New England area. However, it was not until 1789 that the first national Thanksgiving Day was proclaimed by George Washington. And, even after that precedent, this practice was not carried on by succeeding presidents. It is claimed that Thomas Jefferson condemned it during his two terms. Finally, as already noted, in 1863 Abraham Lincoln established a yearly national festival, which ensuing presidents have honored.
Opposition and Change
Why did some people oppose the idea? For one thing, many governors felt that it was an example of state interference with religion. Actually, in time the celebration itself became more political.
For example, Mrs. Hale and her supporters intended it to be both a day of patriotism and religion. She wrote in one article: “Then in every quarter of the globe our nationality would be recognized . . . every American . . . would thrill his soul with the purest feelings of patriotism and the deepest emotions of thankfulness for his religious enjoyments.” That this idea was held by others is noted in The American Book of Days: “It has frequently been the custom for clergymen to preach political sermons on Thanksgiving Day. In the early years of the nineteenth century their sermons were extremely partisan.”
Thus time and legend have added much to the celebration. Yet perhaps the most drastic changes are recent ones.
The Present Reality
Today a growing cry is heard against Thanksgiving Day practices. Many feel that current attitudes and customs make it a mockery to call it a “Day of Thanks.” Why so?
In much of the United States, Thanksgiving Day is the beginning of the Christmas season—a ‘holiday period’ extending through New Year’s Day, January 1. So Thanksgiving (now the fourth Thursday in November) becomes the signal for the commercial world to press for what is called the ‘buying binge.’
Further, for many the day is becoming one for ‘saturating’ the public with sports events. The National Observer told of a man who insisted that his wife quickly feed him during the “half-time” break in the football game. “So after the poor woman had worked many hours preparing the turkey and trimmings, the husband said grace, ate his dinner, and was back in front of the television set—in nine minutes.”
While this is an extreme case, the increasing emphasis on sports and commercialistic parades has led more and more people away from any attitude of thankfulness. But how has the “secularizing” of the day, as it is politely called, come about?
It ties in with the entire ‘religious picture’ in North America. The public’s view of most churches and their clergy frequently is one of apathy and disdain. Even as one editorial spoke out against “the void Christian churches failed to fill,” it also assailed church leaders who “seemed to prefer to fill their hungry sheep with the most convenient sort of instant political Pablum.”
Alongside disillusionment with most American churches stands the reality of a population no longer agricultural. Less than 6 percent are now involved in farming. Since food obviously does not grow in supermarkets and just pop out of plastic containers, North Americans in ever greater numbers find little reason to contemplate a harvest festival.
Of course, for many the holiday is still a time of family reunion. And there remain those who sincerely view this day as one of thanksgiving to God. But with the rising tide of sports, the frequent gluttony and drunkenness, the trend definitely is in another direction. For a growing majority, having a special meal is the extent of “celebrating” Thanksgiving.
In view of its past associations and present reality, those who seek God’s approval obviously have much to think about as this holiday draws near. The Bible’s position on drunkenness and gluttony is well known. (1 Pet. 4:3; Prov. 23:20, 21) But what is the Scriptural view of such a national thanksgiving day?
A Bible Holiday?
Sarah Hale, in campaigning for a national festival, wrote: “Can we not then, following the appointment of Jehovah in the ‘Feast of Weeks,’ or Harvest Festival, establish our yearly Thanksgiving?” To what was she referring? The belief, still held by some, is that observing a ‘thanksgiving day’ is a Bible command, since Jehovah God instituted a harvest festival with the Mosaic law given to the Jews. (Lev. 23:15-17) Actually, all three of Israel’s primary festivals were directly associated with harvests.—Ex. 23:14-17.
However, with the teachings of Jesus Christ came a new view of the prescribed Jewish celebrations. Just before his death, Jesus commanded but one celebration. He required his followers to memorialize his death. This observance was made all the more outstanding by its being the only one.—Luke 22:19, 20.
The apostle Paul, in fact, became concerned about Jewish Christians who still were “scrupulously observing days and months and seasons and years.” He remarked: “I fear for you, that somehow I have toiled to no purpose respecting you.” (Gal. 4:10, 11) Why was Paul so concerned? Because, despite his hard work, these former Jews were clinging to religious observances that God no longer desired. They were missing the “spirit” of Christianity.
The early Christians were admonished to apply the principle found at Ephesians 5:20. In the name of Jesus Christ, they were to ‘give thanks always for all things to their God and Father.’ Yes, an attitude of constant appreciation for God’s provisions and protection was emphasized repeatedly. The words “thanks” and “thanksgiving” are used over forty times in the Christian Greek Scriptures.
On the contrary, the idea of a single day of thanks undoubtedly would have reminded the early Christians of the pagan Romans, who held an annual thanksgiving celebration in December. A writer of the second century noted: “We [Christians] are accused of a lower sacrilege, because we do not celebrate along with you the holidays of the Cæsars in a manner forbidden alike by modesty, decency, and purity.”
What, then, is the modern-day Christian likely to conclude as he views this national holiday? Looking at many of the present practices, he may be reminded of Second Corinthians 6:14, where we read: “Do not become unevenly yoked with unbelievers. For what fellowship do righteousness and lawlessness have?”
Naturally, many dedicated Christians will not be working secularly on that day. Some may choose to take advantage of this opportunity to enjoy fellowship with family and friends. Yet, what “spirit” will a Christian manifest? It is true that God created turkeys and other foods, so these are not in themselves objectionable. But undoubtedly one who is a true Christian will want to be careful not to stumble others.
Consider what the apostle Paul says, as recorded in First Corinthians, chapter ten. He reasons that Christians should wisely avoid eating before others a perfectly acceptable food if doing so would stumble them. ‘Respect your brother’s conscience’ is the message.
So on November 25, the declared “day of thanks” in 1976, personal decisions need to be made. Dedicated Christians certainly will not want to convey to others the idea that they believe in one-day-a-year gratitude. Really, should not all who profess Christianity encourage a spontaneous spirit of thanksgiving—from the heart—the year around?