We will celebrate Thanksgiving next Thursday. Can you give a sketch of the origins of the national holiday?
I came across a fascinating story written last year by Joseph Kelly, a professor-emeritus at John Carroll University in Ohio. Contrary to popular opinion, the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth, Massachusetts, was not observed in 1621 – the year after the colony was established in 1620 – but in 1623. The “pilgrims” actually were Puritans who wanted to leave England because of religious persecution and economic reasons, and they also believed the Church of England was too closely aligned with the Roman Catholic Church. The first 1620 colony at Plymouth lost half of its population and all but five women in that first winter, and the Puritans survived by getting help from the local Native American tribes. By 1623, the colony had grown stronger, to the point where the settlers felt safe enough to celebrate a day of prayer and thanksgiving, although the actual date is unknown. By the mid-19th century, Thanksgiving had become a widespread Christian holiday, one of the few Protestant days that the immigrant Catholics adopted. But it was still a celebration acknowledged mostly in the abolitionist states. In October 1863, after the Union victory that summer at Gettysburg, President Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November as a day of Thanksgiving. President Franklin Roosevelt signed a resolution in 1941 setting the date for Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November. Thanksgiving is the only legal U.S. holiday that acknowledges that we citizens should give thanks.
What does Thanksgiving mean to you?
All of these many years later, we still gather to thank God for the blessings he has given to us individually and the blessings he continues give to us as the church, the people of God, and to our nation. The real meaning of the day, from the very beginning, was to give thanks to God. In the midst of our dinners and family gatherings, let us remember this is a day to give thanks to God. This is a perfect opportunity to begin our meal with prayer and then go around the table and ask each person to express the name of one person or one thing for which they are grateful to God.
The world today needs Thanksgiving, correct?
As we all know, there are enough challenging and negative things going on in our world. There’s lack of peace in our world. We are a divided nation, at times a divided church and sometimes we experience divided families and communities. But on this day, we not only give thanks to God for what he has given to us but pledge ourselves to be peacemakers and to live our faith in such a way that it can make a difference in our world and in the lives of those whom we love.
We live in a democracy where change is made non-violently through the ballot box. Are you hoping for greater collaboration among parties after the mid-term elections?
I am struck by the lack of collaboration going on in the Congress. One can always be hopeful that as new members join Congress, perhaps we can move toward a greater sense of unity. But as Jesus never gave up on anyone, we should never give up. We must be people of hope and, at the same time, we must be people who make our voices heard to our Congressional representatives and call others to peace. We need to call our leaders from division to unity. Division is not acceptable in our nation, in our church or in our families.
Any suggestions for how Catholics should celebrate Thanksgiving?
Many churches celebrate a vigil Mass for Thanksgiving, and there are Masses on Thanksgiving Day where the entire family can worship together. What a great idea for families to go to church together and to pray in thanksgiving, to hear God’s word and to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. After all, Eucharist means “thanksgiving.”
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