November 15, 2017

It is good to give thanks to the Lord, and to sing praises to Your name, O Most High, to declare Your love in the morning and Your faithfulness by night. Psalm 92:1-2

Thanksgiving seems to get the short end of the stick as far as American holidays go, a sort of bump in the road between Halloween and Christmas. There’s always lots of Halloween decorations, costumes, candy, etc. in the stores way in advance of October 31. Christmas stuff usually arrives sometime that month. Thanksgiving…eh, maybe we’ll see some cards, a turkey decoration or two, and plenty of leaves and gourds (which kind of get mixed in with Halloween). Around our tables, we chow down on turkey, dressing, potatoes, cranberries and pumpkin pie, but that’s about all most of us do to celebrate Thanksgiving.

If you’d like to get more into the spirit of thanks and giving, consider these three national park sites and their stories:

The real first American Thanksgiving

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and 800 Spanish settlers founded St. Augustine in La Florida on September 8, 1565, and promptly celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving. Afterwards, Menéndez invited the native Seloy tribe to join them in a feast. This was the first community act of thanksgiving ever recorded in America (by the priest who performed the Mass), and it occurred right near Castillo de San Marcos National Monument.

The Thanksgiving we all know

Pilgrims were Brits who wanted to separate from the country’s official church, the Church of England. They first fled to Holland to escape persecution, but found that they still wanted to be English. Eventually they set their sights on America.

The ship carrying 101 passengers set sail on September 6, 1620, arriving 66 days later. The rough Atlantic Ocean made the journey aboard the Mayflower miserable for most of them. They were supposed to land further south, but instead they headed to the safer waters of Cape Cod.

Of course they weren’t the first settlers in the area. The indigenous people, most from the Wampanoag tribe, aided the Pilgrims in adjusting to the new land. Three Native Americans are especially noted in history: Samoset, Massasoit and Squanto. Colony governor William Bradford later referred to Squanto in his journal as “a special instrument sent of God for [our] good beyond [our] expectation.”

Cape Cod National Seashore tells the story of both groups, and hosts programs on the Wampanoag culture, history and traditions. A short trail takes you past a former boghouse from the days of commercial cranberry harvesting.

President Lincoln makes it official

All thirteen colonies held thanksgiving celebrations in 1777. Both George Washington and James Madison declared a day of thanks for the entire country. In 1827, Sarah Josepha Hale, then editor of Boston’s Ladies’ Magazine, began advocating Thanksgiving Day as an annual national holiday, and kept at it for the next 36 years. Finally she wrote directly to President Lincoln who, even though the Civil War raged on, promptly issued this proclamation:

I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, …, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him …, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

Learn more about Thanksgiving and our 16th president at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, the only home he ever owned, where he lived from 1844 until he was elected to the White House in 1861.

So there you have it, a short history of our day of thanks and giving, as told by the parks. The common element is gratitude to our Creator and Sustainer God, and sharing what He’s given us with others.

Let’s not let those values get lost in the shuffle.

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