Our family had a Thanksgiving dinner last night. It was not quite the real deal: instead of a proper whole turkey, we had some turkey roll thingee. It was easier and quicker to cook of course, but not quite the same. And this being Australia, we did not quite have all the right stuff to make a proper pumpkin pie for dessert.
(Strangely, these Australians prefer pumpkin as a savoury vegetable, not as a sweet. Things really are upside down here!) Of course the purpose of this article is not to describe my culinary tastes – or lack thereof. It is to talk about Thanksgiving. Most Australians of course know next to nothing about this major American public holiday.
But much more sadly, I suspect that most Americans today do not know much about it either. They enjoy the day (and the long weekend) as a time to pig out, watch football, and relax. It is also the busiest time of the year for air travel. But the true meaning of the celebration is largely lost on most Americans.
As I had to explain to a number of Australians yesterday, Thanksgiving is not just another secular holiday, but is a decidedly Christian occasion. It refers to the original Pilgrim Fathers in America who passionately thanked Almighty God for helping them get through their first year in the new country.
Specifically, it refers to an autumn harvest feast celebration in 1621, in which both Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared in a time of thanksgiving for the harvest, and for God’s provision. Abraham Lincoln turned it into a national holiday in 1863.
The Pilgrims fled the Old World for the New World, especially in search of religious freedom. A year earlier they had sailed from Plymouth England in search of a new and better life, one in which they could worship freely. The perilous two-month sea voyage was difficult enough, with plenty of prayer on offer.
Upon landing in what is now Massachusetts in late November 1620, they had to gear up for a rugged American winter. They faced quite harsh conditions in the New World, but with a great faith and hard work, they made a real go of it.
Although nearly half of the original group died during the long winter, they made it through, with the help of copious prayer and the assistance of sympathetic local Indians. The following year’s abundant harvest resulted in a grateful people, who initiated this Thanksgiving festival.
But as I mentioned, this decidedly Christian event has been greatly watered down over the years, so that the very real faith component of it has been basically weeded out. Yesterday Charles Colson recycled one of his earlier commentaries on Thanksgiving and spoke to this devaluation of Thanksgiving.
Parts of his piece are worth repeating here. “Today’s kids are being fed a half-baked version of Thanksgiving lore, complete with glazed facts, mashed multiculturalism, and a generous helping of censorship. Several children’s books about the Pilgrims are on bookstore shelves. But in a cold November blast of secularism, much of the spiritual component has been blown away.
“As a result, our children are consuming a dumbed-down version of Christian history. They’re taught that the Pilgrims risked their lives traversing the ocean for economic gain, not religious freedom. And that first Thanksgiving feast? It’s described as nothing more than a three-day binge with the Indians.”
“Take, for example, a book called The First Thanksgiving by Jean Craighead George. As this book tells it, the Pilgrims left Europe ‘to seek their fortune in the New World.’ That would have come as news to the Pilgrims themselves. Pilgrim leader William Bradford wrote in his diary that the voyage was motivated by ‘a great hope . . . for advancing the kingdom of Christ.’
“And when it comes to Thanksgiving itself, in this book the religious dimension finds no place at the table. The author states flat-out, ‘This was not a day of Pilgrim thanksgiving’ – thanksgiving to God, that is. Instead, she writes, ‘This was pure celebration.’
“Odd. That’s not the way the Pilgrims themselves remembered it. Listen again to the account by William Bradford, who was actually there: ‘The Lord sent them such seasonable showers,’ Bradford writes, that ‘through His blessing [there was] a fruitful and liberal harvest. . . . For which mercy . . . they set apart a day of thanksgiving.’
“Why aren’t we hearing this side of the Thanksgiving story? Some historians seem to view America’s Christian heritage with about as much enthusiasm as they would a plateful of Hamburger Helper on the Thanksgiving table. And I can think of at least one reason: It has become a fun game for secularists to deride Christians as poor, ignorant, and easily led.
“But far from being easily led, the Pilgrims themselves led the way to settle the New World. These people sailed across dangerous oceans without the benefit of a government grant. They built their own housing in freezing weather without the assistance of a public works program. And when they fell sick, they didn’t look to a government health program to take care of them. Even in the face of death, they nurtured a thankful spirit to God.”
Most US Presidents have recognised and celebrated these truths. Some, like the secularist Obama, have tended to ignore or downplay them. Others with a robust faith, such as Ronald Reagan, did not. This is what Reagan said in one of his Thanksgiving addresses:
“Today we have more to be thankful for than our pilgrim mothers and fathers who huddled on the edge of the New World that first Thanksgiving Day could ever dream. We should be grateful not only for our blessings, but for the courage and strength of our ancestors which enable us to enjoy the lives we do today. Let us reaffirm through prayers and actions our thankfulness for America’s bounty and heritage.”
Consider also his January 11, 1989 farewell address in which he also invoked the Pilgrim Fathers:
“I hope we have once again reminded people that man is not free unless government is limited. There’s a clear cause and effect here that is as neat and predictable as a law of physics: As government expands, liberty contracts. The past few days when I’ve been at that window upstairs, I’ve thought a bit of the `shining city upon a hill.’
“The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined. What he imagined was important because he was an early Pilgrim, an early freedom man. He journeyed here on what today we’d call a little wooden boat; and like the other Pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free.
“I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.
“And how stands the city on this winter night? More prosperous, more secure, and happier than it was eight years ago. But more than that: After 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.
“We’ve done our part. And as I walk off into the city streets, a final word to the men and women of the Reagan revolution, the men and women across America who for eight years did the work that brought America back. My friends: We did it. We weren’t just marking time. We made a difference. We made the city stronger, we made the city freer, and we left her in good hands. All in all, not bad, not bad at all.
“And so, goodbye, God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.”
Reagan certainly was under no illusion concerning America’s spiritual foundations. He shared them, embraced them, and promoted them. We need more American Presidents and leaders who also have a great awareness of, and appreciation for, the overwhelmingly Christian origins of the American nation.
Only then can we properly celebrate Thanksgiving.
(BTW, a great article on how Obama might have celebrated the first Thanksgiving is found here: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2010/nov/24/a-very-obama-thanksgiving/print/ )