With the Thanksgiving holiday almost upon us, this year may be an occasion when Americans not only celebrate with traditional gatherings with family and friends, but perhaps we should all give special thanks that the American ideal is still celebrated during one of the most troubling and worrisome periods in our history.
With that in mind, the following are some Thanksgiving messages I thought you would find of interest.
First, a bit of humor: “They’re coming for Thanksgiving.”
An elderly man in Phoenix calls his son in New York and says, “I hate to ruin your day, but I have to tell you that your mother and I are divorcing. Forty-five years of misery is enough.”
“Pop, what are you talking about?” the son screams.
“We can’t stand the sight of each other any longer,” the old man says. “We’re sick of each other, and I’m sick of talking about this, so you call your sister in Chicago and tell her,” and hangs up. Frantic, the son calls his sister, who explodes on the phone. “Like heck they’re getting divorced!” she shouts, “I’ll take care of this!”
She calls Phoenix immediately and screams at the old man, “You are not getting divorced. Don’t do a single thing until I get there. I’m calling my brother back, and we’ll both be there tomorrow. Until then, don’t do a thing. Do you hear me?” and hangs up.
The old man hangs up his phone and turns to his wife. “OK,” he says, “they’re coming for Thanksgiving and paying their own way.”
Next, a Thanksgiving proclamation by the man who is arguably the greatest president in America’s history.
“The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added which are of so extraordinary a nature that they can not fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.
“In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict, while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.
“Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well as the iron and coal as of our precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.
“No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.
“It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are in foreign lands, 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 for such singular deliverances and blessings 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 imposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the divine purpose, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and union.”
“The first Thanksgiving is one of those heartwarming stories that every child used to know, and some up-to-date teachers take special delight in suppressing. Many teachers approach children nowadays with the absurd presumption that they are triumphalist little bigots who must be taken down a notch and made to grasp that their country has made mistakes. In fact they are little ignoramuses who leave high school believing that their country has made nothing but mistakes, and they never do learn what revisionist history is a revision of.
“It is especially sad when children don’t learn the history of Thanksgiving, which is that rarest of anomalies — a religious festival celebrated by many faiths. The story of the first Thanksgiving would inspire and soothe this nation if only we would let it — this nation so deeply divided between Christians and non-Christians or nominal Christians, where Christians are a solid majority on a winning streak and many non-Christians are scared to death, of ‘Christian fundamentalists’ especially.
“Christian fundamentalists were the first European settlers in this country, and Thanksgiving is their idea. (Puritans were one type of Christian fundamentalist — ‘fundamentalist’ insofar as they focused on biblical basics. The Pilgrims were radical Puritans.) Many Americans are afraid that fundamentalists are inherently intolerant and want to stamp out all religions but their own. Yet that first thanksgiving was celebrated by radical Christian fundamentalists, and American Indians were honored guests — as every child used to know. Obviously fundamentalists are capable of tolerating non-Christians on occasion. In 17th-century America, some Christians used the Bible to explain exactly why American Indians must be treated respectfully. But another fact about that first thanksgiving is also worth pondering: No one tried to convert anyone else. Most of today’s fundamentalist groups don’t fish for converts either, but those who do ought to contemplate thanksgiving number one.
“The Pilgrims celebrated that first thanksgiving in 1621; Edward Winslow describes it in a letter to a friend. ‘Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labours.’ There was a great celebration, ‘many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king, Massasoit with some 90 men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted.’ The Indian contingent ‘went out and killed five deer which they brought to the plantation.’
“The first settlers mostly wanted to be friends with the Indians — and not only for obvious practical reasons. Alexander Whitaker was an early Virginia settler. His description of America was published in 1613. He doesn’t think highly of American Indian religion, but goes on at length about American Indian talent and intelligence. (‘They are a very understanding generation, quick of apprehension’; ‘exquisite in their inventions, and industrious in their labour.’) And after all, he points out, ‘One God created us, they have reasonable souls and intellectual faculties as well as we; we all have Adam for our common parent: yea, by nature the condition of us both is all one.’
“In time, attitudes changed. American settlers and American Indians fell to treating one another savagely, and the Indians got the worst of it. But human greed and violence, not Christianity, brought those changes about. Christian preachers did not always condemn them, but, Christian or not, they were mere human beings after all.
“The Massachusetts Bay Colony, settled by fundamentalists only slightly less radical than the Pilgrims, declared its first thanksgiving in 1630. By the late 1700s, independence was in the air, and the Continental Congress proclaimed many days of thanksgiving. President George Washington lost no time declaring the first thanksgiving under the new Constitution in 1789. Each of these early proclamations was good for a single occasion. But after President Lincoln had proclaimed thanksgiving days in 1863 and ‘64 — specifying the last Thursday in November both times — this characteristically American festival became a yearly custom. Lincoln was not only America’s greatest president; he was our greatest religious figure, too. In his last speech, four days before he was murdered, with the Civil War at an end at last, he proposed one more day of thanksgiving. ‘He, from whom all blessings flow, must not be forgotten. A call for national thanksgiving is being prepared.’
“What to conclude? In a democracy where the majority is Christian, you can no more nitpick public life free of Christianity (as if it were so much lint on a frazzled sweater) than you can hold down the top on a pot of boiling water. Public life in this country has been fundamentally Christian since the first European settlers arrived. It continued Christian when the new nation won its independence and proclaimed its Bill of Rights, and will stay Christian forever, or until a majority decides otherwise — no matter how many anti-religious rulings are extracted from how many antidemocratic power-mad judges.
“Yet the fear of Christian fundamentalism that haunts a significant minority of Americans ought not to be casually dismissed. Some groups still see it as their duty to make converts of non-Christians. History suggests that they had better approach their mission with exquisite tact, or their designated target populations will soon come to hate their guts. I spend a fair amount of effort trying to convince friends and colleagues that their hostility to Christianity is ignorant and bigoted. But when a deadly earnest young Christian approaches, displays an infuriating though subliminal holier-than-thouness, and tries to convert me — it happens rarely, but occasionally — I metamorphose for an instant into a raging leftist.
“But that long-ago first Thanksgiving still speaks to and for every American, and we ought to listen. It speaks to Christians; they thought it up. It speaks to Jews — Pilgrim Christianity was a profoundly ‘Hebraic’ Christianity; the Pilgrims saw themselves as a chosen people arrived in a promised land; their organizations were based on ‘covenants,’ and they were devoted to the Hebrew Bible. (Late in life the eminent Pilgrim father William Bradford began studying Hebrew, so he might behold ‘the ancient oracles of God in their native beauty.’ More than most American Jews can say.) Those who are neither Christian nor Jew are also present in spirit, represented by the great king Massasoit. Everyone is ‘entertained and feasted,’ and everyone leaves with the same faith that brung ‘im. Thanksgiving speaks for Americans, too:. It is just like us to set a day aside for a national thank you to the Lord, or (anyway) to someone. Americans continue to be what Lincoln called us, the ‘almost chosen people,’ struggling to do right by man and God.”
Finally, I would like to wish everyone a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday.
— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who as lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his blog, Opinionfest.com.