Giving thanks, in the fall after the year’s bounty has been harvested, is as old as civilization.
While there is a religious element to capital-T Thanksgiving (which is, after all, a shortened version of “holy day”), it seems to have no spiritual or geographic boundaries. Celebrations similar to our Thanksgiving occur from India to China to Ghana to Korea.
The ancient Greeks and Romans held festivals honoring the goddess of grains (Demeter to the Greeks, Ceres to the Romans). Jewish culture has held a harvest festival, Sukkoth, for more than 3,000 years. The Egyptians who built the pyramids honored their god of vegetation and fertility in the spring, their harvest season.
Giving thanks after the crops have been gathered is a universal instinct, dating to a past when most people actually grew the food that sustained them for the rest of the year.
(The Puritans, before they emigrated to America, wanted to replace church holidays with Days of Fasting or Days of Thanksgiving. Right. And we won’t go shopping on Black Friday, either.)
Christian settlers in what is now the United States no doubt were thankful just to be on dry land again after a long sea voyage. Claims of the first New World Thanksgiving are myriad.
Massachusetts owned the franchise for a long time, harking back to a feast the Pilgrims and Native Americans shared in 1621, before they started killing each other.
Not so fast, Virginians objected. There was a documented celebration at Berkeley Plantation along the James River two years before, in 1619. Surely this was the first thanksgiving held by Europeans in the New World.
Perhaps not. In 1598, Spanish settlers had a thanksgiving to praise God for their arrival in what is now El Paso, Texas. And even earlier, in 1565, 800 Spanish settlers who landed in present-day St. Augustine, Fla., attended a Catholic mass of thanksgiving.
Was that the first? Mais non. The French Huguenot settlement near Jacksonville, Fla., held a thanksgiving of its own the year before, in 1564. Then, the Huguenots were nearly wiped out by the Spanish the following year. The survivors fled back to France, probably making memories of that first thanksgiving bittersweet at best.
And long before Columbus set sail, Native Americans were having harvest festivals of their own, honoring their own deities.
We have much for which to give thanks even in this trying year. Medical science has given us a vaccine with which to fight a pandemic that could have been multiple times worse. We have dedicated doctors, nurses and others who have sacrificed much—even their lives in some cases—to get us through what we pray is the worst of COVID-19. We have teachers who have been there for our children, even when Zoom was the only way they could connect. We have reason to believe better days are coming.