Thanksgiving: Yesterday and today a harvest festival and a family celebration

November 16, 2018

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Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving was declared a national holiday in the United States by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Lincoln said it was to be a day of “thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.” It is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November.

Thanksgiving began as a harvest festival sometime between September and November in 1621. It was one year after the Mayflower had arrived. 102 pilgrims had landed on the coast of Massachusetts. After a brutal winter of cold, disease, and starvation, only 53 colonists survived to the next fall. The local Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans came to the aid of the colonists, taught them how to plant corn and fertilize their fields with fish, and with a bountiful harvest and good hunting, both had plenty of food in reserve to survive the upcoming winter. In gratitude for the harvest, 90 of the Wampanoag tribe and the 53 remaining colonists joined together for three days of celebration. They feasted on five deer, a variety of birds, corn, grapes, plums, mussels, lobsters, and herbs.

Thanksgiving is still about thanks for the harvest, and agriculture has come a long way since 1621. Tractors with cultivators and planters and huge combines make it possible to use large tracts of land. New seed hybrids are constantly being developed. The use of fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides has improved yields. Production, harvesting, transportation, processing, packaging, and distribution have become extremely efficient. The shelves in grocery stores are well stocked. Foods are affordable. Most Americans have full refrigerators and cupboards, and most do not go to bed at night on an empty stomach.

Now fewer Americans work on the farm, the food supply is reliable, and there is little worry about having enough food to get through the winter. As a result, while the focus of the holiday is still on thanksgiving for the harvest, it has been generalized as a time of thanksgiving for all of our blessings: the land, our country, our freedoms, our safety and security, the quality of education and health care, employment, income, savings, homes, possessions, cultural and recreational opportunities, and the countless other good things that we enjoy.

Filled with a tremendous sense of gratitude for all of this, we thank God and gather with our families to celebrate. Our families are such a gift. Our parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters, children and grandchildren, aunts and uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews rank as some of the greatest blessings that God has given to us. The love and care given and received, the sacrifices made, meals together, family conversations, vacations and holidays, ups and downs, fights and make-ups, suffering through illness and hardship, promises made and kept, traveling the journey of life hand in hand, and the common bond shared – family is a gift beyond all measure.

On Thanksgiving we ought to praise and thank God for the gift of our families. For those who have gone ahead of us, we can send a prayer of thanks to them in heaven. For the members of our immediate families, we can thank God for each one of them, mention them individually, and ask God to shower them with his special graces and divine protection. Thanksgiving, or a day near it, is a wonderful occasion to get together with our immediate family, and relatives, too, to eat and drink, rejoice and celebrate, and deepen and renew the bonds of love.

Finally, Thanksgiving is an ideal occasion to thank our family members, to express our thanks to them personally, to speak it out loud, to identify specific instances when they have said or done something that we appreciate or affected our life in a positive way. We should not leave important things unsaid. If we are grateful, we should say so. To thank a family member who is near and dear to our heart is a beautiful way to express our love for them.

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About Father Michael Van Sloun

Father Michael A. Van Sloun is the pastor of Saint Bartholomew of Wayzata, MN. Ministerial interests include weekly Bible study, articles on theological topics, religious photography, retreats on Cross spirituality, and pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Italy, Greece and Turkey.

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