Our American Thanksgiving: A Gracious Gift

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Thanks be to GodThe first thing we can thank God for this Thanksgiving is that we Americans still have Thanksgiving.

 

This holiday, so bound up with our history and our traditions, is in danger.

Most department stores have long since put up their Christmas – correction – holiday decorations and filled the air with “Yuletide” carols.

With more and more national retail chains opening for business on Thanksgiving Day, we have to ask: Will Thanksgiving Day give way to Black Thursday in years to come? Will it be no more than the kickoff for the season of year-end bargain-hunting? Will an unrelenting materialism drive out any time for home and hearth?EPSON MFP image

 

One of the great reasons we have so honored the Chick-fil-A company is that they close on Sundays, the Lord’s Day. As unusual as this is, even more unusual is the reason the Cathy family has long given its customers for the day of rest: It is so their workers can spend the day with their loved ones. Turning aside from this headlong rush toward secularism, we can celebrate another bounteous harvest with the words of the great New England poet, John Greenleaf Whittier:

 

Give fools their gold and knaves their power;
Let fortune’s bubble rise and fall;
Who sows a field, or trains a flower,
Or plants a tree, is more than all.

MayflowerIn the United States, the origins of Thanksgiving Day are usually traced to the Pilgrim Fathers and their arrival at Plymouth Rock in 1620. These English Protestants sought refuge in Massachusetts so they might practice their religion unharried by royal mandates. The Pilgrims voyaged to the rocky, forbidding coast of New England aboard the tiny sailing ship, Mayflower.

 

Their Mayflower Compact was the first charter of government by the consent of the governed to be framed for the Pilgrims’ “errand into the wilderness.” So, from the beginning, religious freedom and self-government were inextricably bound together. The New England town meetings that grew out of the Mayflower Compact were the seedbed of American Independence a century and a half later.

 

So powerful was the Pilgrim story for much of our history that even two centuries later, the great French writer Alexis de Tocqueville could observe of Plymouth Rock:

 

“This Rock has become an object of veneration in the United States. I have seen bits of it carefully preserved in several towns in the Union. Does this sufficiently show that all human power and greatness is in the soul of man? Here is a stone which the feet of a few outcasts pressed for an instant; and the stone becomes famous; it is treasured by a great nation; its very dust is shared as a relic.”

 

Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America, (1835) his classic work of political science, that religion is the first of Americans’ political institutions. Tocqueville could not say whether Americans were sincere in their Christian faith, for who can see into another man’s soul? Yet, this young Catholic genius strongly maintained that he had seen the fruits of that faith. Americans were more capable of self-government, he wrote, because they believed that God gave them the ability, and the right, to manage their own affairs.

 

We observed on November 19th the 150th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. In this immortal speech, President Abraham Lincoln described the causes of the great Civil War then raging. He said “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” Regrettably, some of our leaders have omitted “under God” from their remembrances of the great event.

 

This is also the 150th Anniversary of President Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation. Beginning an annual national observance of the day, he wrote in 1863:

 

“Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battlefield; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.”

Celebrating the harvest as we do, thankful for the rich bounty of America’s farms, rivers, lakes, and seas as we are, we need to remember they are the gracious gifts of the Most High God. If we do this, we may look ahead hopefully to many of Thanksgivings to come.