Mention “The First Thanksgiving” and people immediately think of Pilgrims in dark clothes with big white collars and brightly dressed Native Americans gathered for a feast at Plymouth, Massachusetts. The year was 1621 and they spent three days celebrating the survival of the English settlement after a successful harvest. Of course, folks from Virginia might argue that English settlers there had conducted their own Thanksgiving two years earlier. Still, tradition is a powerful teacher, and today Americans recognize that gathering of 53 Pilgrims and 90 members of the Wampanoag tribe who shared venison, turkeys, and a variety of other dishes, including pumpkins (though probably not in pies), as the basis of our own holiday customs.
There’s no doubt that the new arrivals had reason to be grateful – to God, to the native people and to each other. They had lost about half their number to sickness and to hardship aboard the Mayflower and while they established their colony, yet they were already beginning to prosper. These determined people had come to the shores of America like so many after them to find a place where they could worship freely. Over the next two centuries, the desire for freedom and self-determination which was so vital to the colonists would lead to a revolution and the founding of a new nation.
In 1789, the United States of America was just finding its way with the establishment of the Constitution and the election of George Washington as the first president. Before the year was over, Washington issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation: “Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor – and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me ‘to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.’”
But how many of us actually acknowledge “with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God” – whether on Thanksgiving or any other day? Do we really appreciate our country? Our community? Our family? Do we let those around us know just how much they mean to us?
All too often we get so caught up thinking about ourselves, our needs, even our accomplishments. We take the blessings – large and small – from our Creator, as well as the everyday generosity that comes from other people, for granted. So this year when we sit down at the holiday table with our loved ones, let’s take a moment to really say “Thanks!”
“Expressing gratitude for the gifted nature of our existence frees us from a delusion that cripples us with arrogance,” says Father Stephen Rehrauer, C.Ss.R., a professor of moral theology, writing in Liguorian magazine. “Thanking God before we eat isn’t for God’s benefit; it’s a prayer of blessing. We do it to remind ourselves of a truth we so easily forget: We have all been and continue to be the recipients of the unearned love of God and the work of others. As individuals and as a nation, as a truly good and moral people, may we this year be truly grateful for what we have received – for all these things and for all these people who are the tangible ways in which God continues to bless us.”
We don’t have to travel to a new land to find God’s blessings or a reason to be grateful. We just have to open our eyes and our hearts.