Today “millions of families will celebrate Thanksgiving with roasted turkey, buttery mashed potatoes, and (with only a slight amount of guilt) another piece of pumpkin pie. But in early America, days of Thanksgiving weren’t always about food” (from ‘The True meaning of Thanksgiving’).
But where does it come from? How is it celebrated? And do the Amish celebrate it?
When I was a child growing up in the UK, I well remember ‘Harvest Festivals’ in our local churches. Produce, whether home grown or bought, was brought into the church which would be decorated with flowers and greenery as well as the offered produce. There would be a huge loaf of bread, baked in the shape of a flat sheaf of corn, usually with a mouse on the stalks. We would sing harvest hymns such as ‘We Plough the Fields and Scatter’ and give thanks to God for the harvest. The produce would later be packed up and shared with the poor and homeless. Sadly that seems a dying tradition now and in recent years, I haven’t seen it at all.Origins of Thanksgiving
The origins of Thanksgiving go right back to the earliest settlements in the New World by Europeans, mostly Dutch (from Holland) and English. In 1620, a ship called the Mayflower set sail from Leyden in Holland, bound for the New World. On board were 102 passengers, plus crew and at least two dogs (maybe other animals too, for starting life in a new colony). The travellers were a mixture of people wanting to start a new life and people fleeing religious persecution. Amongst them was a man called William Bradford, who became one of the first Governors of New England.
The voyage took 66 days. They arrived during a storm and anchored off Cape Cod, before finding shelter and a safe harbour in Plymouth Harbour (in what is now New Jersey). The sight that met them was less than welcoming. There were no people to welcome them, no other settlement nearby, it was cold and winter was approaching. Many of the travellers succumbed to disease and hypothermia in those first months, including William Bradford’s wife. Of the twenty women who were on the Mayflower, thirteen died.The following spring, food was running out. The natural foods growing wild, they did not know if they were safe to eat. Then out of the blue, an Indian man arrived who spoke perfect English. He saw the state the new settlers were in and the next day he returned with another Indian, named Squanto, who taught them what berries were safe, how to catch fish and other seafoods, and how to plant corn the traditional Indian way. Bradford and his companions were certain that God had sent this man to them to save them from certain death by starvation: “I suspect that many times during those festivities the Pilgrims stopped to thank the Lord for His miraculous provision of Squanto. Had it not been for him, there would have been no cause for celebration and thanksgiving. God had sent this American Indian, who spoke English fluently, ate English foods, understood English customs and ways, and knew about the Christian faith because of his time with the Spanish monks: the right man, in the right place, at the right time. Only God can do something like that” (from ‘The First Thanksgiving’).
Late in the autumn, after the first harvest was gathered in, the small company of Christians met for a service of thanksgiving to god for His goodness to them and for His preservation of them. “The Pilgrims recognized that everything we have is a gift from God – even our sorrows. Their Thanksgiving tradition was established to honor God and thank Him for His blessings and His grace” (from ‘The Real Meaning of Thanksgiving’). They invited their Indian helpers and saviours to join them in this celebration. The women were worried that the harvest would not stretch far enough to feed them and their visitors, but the Indians had thought of that – they brought with them wild turkeys, five deer and other foods to share. It was a good time after the shaky beginnings of the new colony.This is probably the most famous of the thanksgiving stories and is the one that is recalled in schools at this time of year. There were other thanksgivings going on around the same time, but this is the one that has stood the test of time.
Thanksgiving TodayAlthough many families will pray a prayer of thanksgiving to God for the year past, Thanksgiving has become largely a secular holiday. It is a time to meet with friends and family, to have time off work, to watch football and generally to eat too much. Turkey with all the trimmings is served, much like it might have been at the original Thanksgiving in Plymouth. Desserts are also served, but as the sugar supply was probably very low or non-existent by this time, it is doubtful the new settlers would have eaten desserts like pumpkin pie, a staple of the American thanksgiving menu. I was invited to an American air base once for Thanksgiving celebrations and the array of different foods was mind blowing! Young children might have a school programme where they act out the first Thanksgiving, to the delight of the parents; the origins of Thanksgiving are on the curriculum as part of the American heritage and history. But sadly not many now understand the significance, or know that they are giving thanks to Almighty God for His provision for their needs.
Thanksgiving and the AmishDo the Amish celebrate Thanksgiving? Yes, they do, much the same way as the rest of America. It is a time of getting together with family and eating a thanksgiving meal, with turkey and all the rest, including desserts. There is also a real sense of thanking the good Lord for what He has given. Saloma Miller Furlong has described what it was like at a family Thanksgiving during her childhood. Games were played, dishes were washed (several times), visiting (chatting) with family they might not see regularly through the rest of the year was carried on, and then there was the meal itself to be enjoyed. To read more, see http://aboutamish.blogspot.co.uk/2010/11/thanksgiving-with-mems-family.html.
Wanda Brunstetter describes it: “Thanksgiving is celebrated by the Amish in much the same way as many English people celebrate it. In the morning, the Amish gather for devotions, and many of them share something they are grateful for. The adults and older children have a time of prayer and fasting during the morning hours, and then around noon they gather with other family members for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. The meal consists of turkey with stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, vegetables, salads, freshly baked bread, and desserts. After the meal, the adults visit, while the children play games” on a page on her website, AmishFacts, point 13.
It seems to me that Thanksgiving to God for all He has done for us is something we could and perhaps should all do. We may not have travelled to the New World or suffered great hardships, but that seems to be all the more reason to celebrate a kind of Thanksgiving. Of course, we can and should give thanks at all times and for all things, acknowledging that God is the great Provider of all we have. But would there be anything wrong with having a special service of thanksgiving each autumn after the harvest? It would certainly be a better alternative than celebrating Halloween and would show the separation between the church and the world with clarity. And giving the produce to the poor and homeless would be fulfilling another of Christ’s commands that we look after those less fortunate than ourselves. So let’s resurrect the celebration of a Harvest Thanksgiving here in the UK (with apologies to those who already do).What do you think?