The Time of Thanksgiving
By Howard Fast
It is not difficult to live with a woman a lifetime and not know her; it is very easy to live with a nation a lifetime in the same state of ignorance. I'm sometimes amused by people who know America so well, who are so ready to answer any fact, any detail, any shade of opinion in this vast and many-sided country of a hundred and forty million people and many million square miles.
No one is that omniscient. No one can speak for all of us. It is true that one can listen and hear a great deal; but still we speak in many tongues and many tones. Sometimes, though, we speak together, in a song, in devotion to a man we love, an ideal, a cause, a dream, and--curiously enough--a holiday.
We have a holiday, and for those who would find out about us, I think there is the best clue. A holiday like no other in the world, not religious, not a state or political holiday, not a modernized version of some pagan rite; but in the truest sense of the word, a people's holiday, a day of thanksgiving that came from the nation, even as the nation was making itself, building itself, from all the many and varied peoples of this earth.
We call it Thanksgiving--there could be no better name--and we celebrate it in every church, every temple, but not only in the churches and the temples--in the homes of the country, in the towns and the cities, and in all the far-flung places where our people might be....
It is interesting, and in a sense good, for us to inquire back and see how this time of thanksgiving came about; not only from the Pilgrims, as the old tale tells it, but from several places, all of them winding together, like a rope being woven. Yet in a fashion that first Thanksgiving* in 1631 made a pattern, not a pattern that was copied, but a pattern repeated over and over again, since the land was the same, the urge, the memories, and the hopes too.
The year 1631 was a black year in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The few people there were ringed in by a stretching, endless unknown of wilderness; the forest went on forever, and they were just a few men and women on the edge of nowhere. There was little food; the children whimpered from hunger; the men and women were gaunt-faced. They were a people who lived by the Book, and even as other people in the wilderness had done so long before, they turned on their leaders and berated them for having led them into this dark and hopeless place. And their leader, a stern man, even as that other leader had been a stern man, decreed a day of fasting.
"Ye think ye know hunger," he said. "Ye have escaped oppression and brutality, and this is God's land where Jehovah sees us, and yet ye whimper of hunger. Then shall ye know hunger and complain no more."
He decreed a day of fasting, stilling the people with his wrath. But before that day, a ship loaded with provisions sailed into Massachusetts Bay. There was food in plenty: the sun broke through the cold clouds--the leader relented, and the people sat down at long, rough-hewn board tables to feast and to give thanks that they were here in this land, where there was no king and no established church to tell them they might not worship God in their own way....
We remember that Thanksgiving; let's recall that some thirteen years after that day there was another Thanksgiving, by a people who knew nothing of the Pilgrims or of that first Thanksgiving, by a people who spoke another tongue.
The place was the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam, more than two hundred miles south and west of Massachusetts Bay. Menaced by Indians, the stout burghers left their garden patches, their counters and their fur piles, shouldered their pikes and their clumsy matchlocks, and went out to fight for the little corner they had scraped from the wilderness. They were not fighting men; they were afraid; the dark forest which clothed Manhattan Island then held nothing but terror. For all that, they fought the Indians and they won, and their leader, Governor Kieft, proclaimed a public thanksgiving, which was held in February of 1644. And in the same way, with the fruits of the land piled high on the rough-hewn tables, and with a prayer, not in a church, but in the open air, under the cold sky, a prayer of thanks for the good land to which they had come.
We begin to see that Thanksgiving was not a traditional feast, originating in Massachusetts, observed there, and fastened upon the rest of the Union; we begin to see Thanksgiving as a peculiar expression of various groups of driven, persecuted people who came to these shores. I can remember nine recorded instances of pre-Revolutionary colonies declaring Thanksgiving feasts or holidays, and in no case is there any evidence that this is to be thought of as a churchly holiday.
Just what was this peculiar and, I think, wonderful awareness of themselves that Americans had then and still have? Why this humble gratefulness, so like that of the Children of Israel when they came out of Egypt? Where is the key? Let's trace a little more of the history of Thanksgiving.
We find that on eight separate occasions, during the long and terrible course of the American Revolution, the Continental Congress set aside specific days of thanksgiving. Nor were these in any way derivative of the Pilgrim's holiday; no, they were a humble measure of thanks for the few and pitiful little victories their ragged armies gained.
On the eighteenth of December, 1777, in the cold hell of Valley Forge, General Washington did a strange and seemingly perverse thing. He appointed a day of thanksgiving**--and what had his men to be thankful for?
What indeed? What is this curious thread that runs through American life, so puzzling to foreigners, and, unhappily, so puzzling to a good many Americans. Why did Richards Wagon Train, in 1869, after losing twelve of its people to an Indian attack, order a day of thanksgiving? Why was such a day made, at varying times, by president after president--yet made more so by the people, who looked about them with a kind of silent wonder?
Where is the key? Perhaps the key to that is the key to much of America....
There is no doubt that we are, in our own minds, the most inevitable people on earth. Other peoples have lost wars; that is inconceivable to us. What is there that we can't do, that we don't boast of doing? So people take us for braggarts, forgetting that never, never in our most optimistic moments, have we taken ourselves for granted.
We are thankful--and constantly thankful--because nothing is or ever has been ours by divine right. We are no supermen; we are the mongrel people of all bloods and all races and all religions. What we have we have made out of sweat, blood, and faith in man.
That's why we are thankful.
We had nothing to start with, just the land as God left it; there were no titles, no lords, no kings--but there was a memory of all those things. The memory is soaked all through us, and even if we deny it, the memory is there.
And we are thankful because it's only a memory.
We were a harried people, if ever there were a harried and hunted people. How many thousands of us came to this shore as bound servants!--by the shipload, we came from Ireland, England and Scotland. How many of us in the holds of slave ships! How many of us with the stench of burning flesh in our nostrils! How many thousands in the disease-infested steerage! What were the memories made of? Do we forget the Catholics driven from the land, the Protestants murdered in the night, the pogroms, the Unitarians festering in prison, the Quakers tortured, the Methodists crucified? Do we forget the famines, the plagues?
So we are thankful. Though it's only a memory, we're thankful--for memories come alive....
We made ourselves a holiday, and it's unlike any holiday in any land. In Ohio, the corn is husked, and the bound sheaves go on, seemingly forever against the autumn sky. In California, the grapes dry on the vines and become raisins. In Kansas, the wheat fields are like golden sheaves. In Massachusetts, the pumpkins lie ripe and full. In a hundred cities, the lights of evening come on, glisten in the rain or on rivers or bays. All's well in the land. The trains drive through the dusk, three thousand miles, east to west, two thousand, north to south....
They will say we are content, fattened on ourselves, peaceful, knowing neither war nor hunger, smug, satisfied citizens of a thousand Main Streets. I think we know something else; we give thanks humble, and, I think, sincerely.
These things are ours only by the right of man to all things good--a precious right. A right to be paid for--and the proof of that, on this same autumn day, is the sunlight which shines always on the graves of Americans in some corner of this earth.
* Mr. Fast quotes as his authorities the Encyclopedia of United States History and The Beginners of a Nation by Edward Eggleston.
**The custom of observing Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November stems from a decision of Washington to set aside Thursday, November 26, 1789, as a date of general thanksgiving throughout the newly formed union.
Mademoiselle (magazine), November, 1944