Thanksgiving is among the greatest of our national holidays. But like so many of our holidays — Christmas, Easter, Memorial Day, Independence Day — the American public has lost a real understanding for why we celebrate it.
When the Pilgrims celebrated that famous feast in 1621, the calling of a special day of thanksgiving was by no means a novel idea. Days of prayer, fasting, and thanksgiving were all common at the time, often proclaimed in response to a particular peril or tragedy, or, more happily, in the aftermath of an exceptional blessing. The Pilgrims had undergone both. The year before, in 1620, they endured a wretched ten-week voyage across the Atlantic, followed by a harsh winter in which 58 of the original 102 colonists died. And yet, a bountiful harvest followed, with the invaluable aid of some local Indians, including a man, Squanto, who happened to know English! Moreover, the Pilgrims now enjoyed the freedom to worship God precisely as they saw fit. They hosted a dinner — attended by 53 Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans — and gave thanks.