3 Forgotten Truths about Thanksgiving

Forgotten truths. You know, the things we sort of know but are not at the forefront of our consciousness.


A little over 25 years ago Robert Fulghum wrote a book: All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.  Among the things he learned: Share everything, Play fair. Don’t hit people, Put things back where you found them. Here are some forgotten truths about Thanksgiving.


1. Thanksgiving did not originate with the Pilgrims.


For Americans, the term “Thanksgiving” conjures up images of turkey and cranberry sauce, parades, and football games.  What we forget it is that before Thanksgiving became an American holiday, thanksgiving celebrations were a hallmark of the Judeo-Christian tradition.  The first Thanksgiving lies far back in prehistory. Harvest festivals are as old as farming.


 Giving thanks to gods or God has a long history. In our most ancient times, people thanked deities or gods as they knew them.  “Thank you for this harvest, rain, the end of rain, etc.” Jewish people with a belief in the one God continued the practice. But it took on new meaning when they saw themselves as a pilgrim people delivered from slavery in the Passover and Exodus.
Christ, with deep roots in this tradition, super-charged this annual celebration with the deepest meaning possible. God not only freed us from human slavery but came among us to show us that love is the gift of self. “He gave himself up for our sakes.”
In the new Passover, we are commanded to remember the supreme love of Christ for us that holds nothing back, that gives everything for our freedom. From the earliest times, Christians saw the Eucharist as a meal of thanksgiving in continuity with similar Hebrew meals and prayers.


2. Thanksgiving is more than indulgence, turkeys, and parades. In its origins, Thanksgiving was a day to put aside differences.


President George Washington proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving Day in 1789. But other administrations seemed to avoid the issue with its political and religious complications.  Then Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a national holiday.
It was clear to him that the blessings of food, land, family, and freedom enjoyed by Americans are all gifts from the Creator.  But Americans, he realized, had forgotten this.  A special day was needed for us to forget our differences and remember our blessings.
Part of the forgotten history of Thanksgiving Day is summed up as follows.
“Thanksgiving as a national holiday almost died out, because of the stubborn opposition of another Virginia President, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson took the position that Thanksgiving was a purely religious matter, and the President had no right to do or say anything about it, since the Constitution specifically prohibits any connection between church and state.”


Lincoln was inspired by Sarah Josepha Hale,  the editor of the most popular fashion magazine of the 1860s (and the author of the poem “Mary Had a Little Lamb”). For years she had promoted a single, nationwide celebration of family unity. She wrote:


“Though the members of the same family might be too far separated to meet around one festive board, they would have the gratification of knowing that all were enjoying the blessings of the day.


“Year after year she bombarded influential public figures—governors, mayors, college presidents, editors and judges—with personal letters about Thanksgiving. It was her custom to write to each new President on the subject as soon as he took office.”
She had a particularly convincing argument for President Lincoln:


“If Thanksgiving were a national holiday, she argued, it would constitute one more bond to hold the Union together … Would it not be of great advantage socially, nationally, and religiously to have the day of our American Thanksgiving positively settled?


“Putting aside the sectional feelings … would it not be more noble, more truly American, to become nationally in unity when we offer to God our tribute of joy and gratitude for the blessings of the year?
“Bear in mind that 1863 was the year of Gettysburg and Vicksburg and the New York City draft riots—a year of bloodshed and battle, of suffering in both North and South. Yet President Lincoln agreed with Mrs. Hale that the United States had much to be thankful for that year.
So Thanksgiving was a day to promote unity on what we could agree on.


3. The Christian dimension of Thanksgiving is more than an attitude of gratitude. It is a commitment to give something of self.


Christians are a “pilgrim” people. 
The Second Vatican Council reminds us that the church “will not achieve its perfection until the end of history.” We are a “pilgrim people”,  pilgrims on a journey, hoping to achieve our final destiny to be in eternal communion with God for all of eternity. The Church is on its way between the First and Second Advent of Christ. How fitting it is that we celebrate Thanksgiving just before Advent.


Christians are a “eucharistic” people. At the heart, Eucharist means “thanksgiving.”
Christ filled this annual celebration with the deepest meaning possible. God not only us freed from human slavery and our narcissism but came among us to show us that love is the gift of self. “Do this in memory of me…”Wash one another’s feet”.  We are commanded to remember the supreme love of Christ for us that holds nothing back, that gives everything for our freedom. St. Vincent de Paul captures this spirit when he said “Let us love God, But let it be with the sweat of our brows and the strength of our arms.”


Reflection Questions about “forgotten truths’

  • Do I see Thanksgiving celebrations in continuity with a long history of giving thanks?
  • As I celebrate Thanksgiving do I see it also as a time to put aside difference and seek to understand one another.?
  • Do I see the connection between thanksgiving for what I have received and the challenge to give myself to others?

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