Thanksgiving Day is an official federal holiday in both the United States and Canada. The holiday celebrates the harvest and the blessings of the previous year; it has historic and Christian roots. Unfortunately, people often forget about that and turn the holiday into a purely secular celebration.
The history of Thanksgiving
Back in the early 1600s, there was a group of Protestant British men and women who called themselves Separatists and sought more religious freedom from the Church of England. A few of them made the decision to sail to America on the Mayflower ship. There were about a hundred people traveling on the ship for 9 long weeks.
When the Pilgrims (the name used to talk about this particular group of settlers) finally reached the American land, they realized that the territory hasn’t been colonized yet, there were no other settlers around. So they built their own town called Plymouth (now located in Massachusetts) and created their own government and laws.
They were however not prepared for the upcoming winter. The cold and the famine took many lives that year, but the Pilgrims trusted God and knew that He had a plan.
Meanwhile, the area closest to Plymouth was inhabited by a Native American tribe called Wampanoag. These people were expert hunters, they were good at fishing and they grew their own fruit and vegetables during the summer months. During the winter months, they moved away from the coastline into the woods and survived by eating meat and making warm clothes from fur and leather.
One day the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag met by God’s providence. This turned into an unlikely friendship between the people of such different cultures. A Wampanoag man named Squanto helped the Pilgrims by teaching them how to grow vegetables and hunt.
After their first successful harvest, the Pilgrims felt extremely happy and thankful. The men went hunting and returned with a miraculously large amount of meat which was more than they could all eat. They invited the Wampanoag to join them in this big feast of giving thanks to the Lord for His providence. They realized that it was because of God that the Wampanoag found them and saved them from death by teaching them everything they knew.
Since the first Thanksgiving feast, the tradition lived on. In 1863 it became an official holiday in the United States after Abraham Lincoln chose Thursday, November 26 as a perfect day for the holiday.
In 1941 President Roosevelt officially changed the date of the holiday, making it flexible. Since then the feast of Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November each year. This year for example it falls on November 25th, exactly one month before Christmas.
What does the holiday look like for most people nowadays? Unfortunately, some people think it is all about food. People spend hours making mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, and of course the turkey. They spend so much time cooking and preparing everything that it is sometimes difficult to enjoy the family dinner in the end.
A good part of the holiday is that it is also about family. Families reunite on Thanksgiving day to share a meal together and it is a wonderful thing. Praying before dinner and listing the things each family member is thankful for is a beautiful Christian Thanksgiving tradition that is still kept in most American families.
While some people like to watch sports games (mainly hockey and football) and the annual Macy’s parade, others prefer to go to church in the morning and spend some time praying to God away from the chaos. Some parishes host special Thanksgiving prayer services and even breakfasts or lunches, so that the parishioners can celebrate together as well.
For Orthodox Christians, the holiday season is the time of prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. Here in Belarus, the Nativity Fast starts on November 28th, just a few days after Thanksgiving. In the Orthodox Church of America however, the fast started on November 15th. American Orthodox families usually attend Liturgy on Thanksgiving day and share a lenten dinner with their family members.
With the holiday season officially starting, with all the stress and joys that it may bring, it is very important to not forget about thanking God. We should remember that Thanksgiving has Christian roots and try to focus more on this part of the holiday to make it even more enjoyable and meaningful.
Of the many saints commemorated in the Orthodox Church throughout the liturgical year, two are very unusual ones - Saints Peter and Fevronia. In Belarussian Orthodox Church, we celebrate their feast day on July 8th.