In anticipation of next week’s holiday, I have raided my archives for this offering, while I prepare myself for a busy per-holiday season. It is my hope that you enjoy Thanksgiving Day with loved ones, and, if that is not possible for you, that you will find peace and know many reasons for which to be thankful as I am to be here.
A few centuries ago, a group of people uprooted themselves and their families, traveled halfway around the world, and started a new life. They were not the first to arrive on the shores of America, and they would not be the last. Others had been living on the land for a thousand years, and still others had settled southern regions successfully in intervening years. Nevertheless, the people who settled upon Plymouth Rock were the revolutionaries, leaving home not for business or adventure, but for freedom.
In the year following their landfall, the Pilgrims had many hardships, but the people already here helped them to start crops, to cultivate, to build their new homes. When, at last, a year had passed, they had a full and, as they say, bountiful harvest, which they celebrated by giving thanks to, first God, and second, the people who had helped them. They had a great feast, one which lasted for several days, during which they played games, caroused and sang, ate good food and drank good wine. From time to time, they may have lapsed into quiet reflection and prayer, but mostly, all enjoyed the fellowship of each other.
The tradition of giving thanks continued, off and on, for the next few centuries, with harvest Festivals of Thanks, and with officially established Days of Thanksgiving, the first of these national holidays being established by The Joint Committees of Congress in 1789, and signed by President Washington. There were subsequent acts of Congress and declarations of presidents to celebrate, but it took President Lincoln to set the absolute date we use today, the fourth Thursday in November, as the formal Thanksgiving Day. By the time Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president, we were so used to the annual event that, when he tried to move the holiday forward a week to help the merchants by extending the shopping season, he was met with such resistance (by football teams and fans, especially) that in 1941, Congress established the fourth Thursday of November as the official and permanent national holiday, with a Joint Resolution. We continue the tradition of celebrating the survival of the early settlements, now, with the same spirit as ever.
I’m fairly certain that, if you are an adult, you’ve heard all or part of this story repeatedly, over the years, through school pageants, church pageants, and television specials. If you think about it, though, it bears repeating. Plymouth colony was established by people who had good will for all, an abundance of faith, and the will to be free and make others free who came to live with them. This colony was to set a number of precedents which made our nation what it is today. Of all the things the early colonists did for which we should still be thankful this day, the one most precious to me is the willingness to leave home to spread the virtues of freedom.
Today, while we are safe at home, taking pleasure in good food and good company, we still have our own pilgrims not beside us at the table, because they have followed the call. If they get to share a turkey dinner, it will likely be in the form of an MRE, a Meal Ready to Eat. A little desiccated meat, some artificial gravy which tastes unlike anything which can be mentioned in a family newspaper, and, perhaps some grey peas are the probable feast the modern pilgrims will find for supper. They lack soft beds, soft words, and still nights. The natives are, just as in our past, mostly friendly, but enough of them are angry over the arrival of the pilgrims -- fearful of the future they offer -- that there is no true safety to be found. Every day, these modern pilgrims risk their lives for the sake of freedom, for us and for complete strangers far from home. Most of them long for the day they can rejoin their loved ones, but all of them know there is a chance that will not happen, just as with past pilgrims. Our troops, gone into harm’s way, follow the centuries-old tradition, so I will quietly pray for their protection, and try to help them build a world of fellowship and freedom. And one by one, to each and every man and a woman in uniform, I offer my thanks. They are truly the greatest blessing of this holiday. And, for the rest of you fine people, I wish you a happy Thanksgiving Day, filled with laughter and fellowship, and faith, if you welcome it -- and enough bounty to bow your tabletops. We can only hope everybody will be able to join us in this pleasure soon.