ONE OF the nicest things about Thanksgiving is that it is universal. Giving thanks, usually in the fall after the year’s bounty has been harvested, is as old as civilization.
While there is a religious element to the holiday (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.
(An ironic aside: the Puritans, before they emigrated to America, wanted to replace church holidays with Days of Fasting or Days of Thanksgiving. 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 the feast the Pilgrims and Native Americans shared in 1621, before they started trying to kill each other.
Not so fast, Virginians objected. There was a documented Thanksgiving 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.
Pero no. 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 more than 50 years before the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth.
Was that the first? Mais non. The French Huguenot settlement near Jacksonville, Fla., held a thanksgiving of its own the year before, in 1564. Tragically, the Huguenots were nearly wiped out by the aforementioned 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.
Being thankful for what one has is a reverent and gracious sentiment, one to be embraced. Savor your blessings like a smoked turkey leg.
As the Native Americans will attest, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.