Of dark-cloaked Demeter I sing, of long famine and thanksgiving … and the arrow-eyed eagle from Olympus fixed his gaze upon the corn-barren plain, leafless, idle till up from the underworld she came, life-full alike the spring breeze that waves the long-eared corn and forward sees the furrows full-bundled with sheaves of golden grain. And the trim-ankled Goddess said, “Enrich the season that gives life to men” and as she spoke, straightway the fruits did spring forth until the whole wide earth was laden with verdant leaves and eager pistilled flowers.*
And that a gloss upon the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, a song alike a prayer of thanksgiving after winter’s deprivations. Each year Athenians of the Golden Age would recite the hymn (we are told) at the Thesmophoria, festival of Thanksgiving. There is much I would like to share of Thesmophoria: Aristophanes, the send-up of Agathon the Beautiful, garlic to keep the men away, piglets in barbeque, and then go on alike a dutiful cultural anthropologist to recite the world’s thanksgiving traditions concluding with, “The American Thanksgiving is a typical festival of the harvest.” Yet I shall not recite the hackneyed progressive cliché because our Thanksgiving is unique—a faithful, Christian tradition by which all the world is made well and whole.
As like you know, the pilgrim Puritans departed Plymouth, Devon, 6 September 1620, to seek a land where they might find peace in the worship of God, free of government mandates and political imposition. The Atlantic passage was cramped, long, difficult; many lost their lives, many more became ill; and the body in whole was urged to compact, a unique document that tells of the people we would become, unified under God for the blessing of all, even those who were not signatories. This from the Mayflower Compact:
…undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the first Colony in the northern Parts of Virginia; Do by these Presents, solemnly and mutually, in the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid: And by Virtue hereof do enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions, and Officers, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general Good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due Submission and Obedience.
9 November 1620 the Pilgrims sighted land along the shores of Cape Cod, paused and in thanksgiving prayed. We are told that this prayer, below, Psalm 100 from the Geneva Bible was among the prayers offered:
Sing ye loud unto the Lord, all the earth.
Serve the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyfulness.
Know ye that even the Lord is God; he hath made us, and not we ourselves: we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter into his gates with praise, and into his courts with rejoicing: praise him and bless his Name.
For the Lord is good: his mercy is everlasting, and his truth is from generation to generation.
Within the year, 49 of the of the 102 Pilgrims had died of starvation, disease, exposure, and yet in the autumn of 1621, the Pilgrims again gave thanks sincerely, devoutly, generously. The local people participated in a Feast of Thanksgiving that included much of what we enjoy in feast today, fowl (most likely, turkey), venison, onions, beans, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, carrots, peas, and perhaps corn, plentiful in our first year’s harvest, and depending upon the month (we are unsure of which months, September through November), blueberries, plums, grapes, gooseberries, raspberries and, of course, cranberries. Yum.
Perhaps you recall Squanto, a boy of Cape Cod, kidnapped into slavery by an evil sea captain. After four years in captivity Squanto was liberated by Catholic friars. He became a Christian, traveled to England, learned English, and was returned to his Cape Cod home where he found all those he loved gone, dead, having succumbed to disease, one of those indiscriminate diseases that travels world round killing as it goes, as now we see. It was Squanto who showed us the ways of the land to which we are native. Always best to remember Squanto, a man generous of Christian charity, a “Christian Knight” you might say, a knight without whom all the world as we know it might not be as now it is. The Pilgrims thought Squanto … well, we should allow Squanto to speak: in the moments before his death, Squanto whispered, “Pray for me, Governor, that I might go to the Englishmen’s God in heaven.”
Yes, each Thanksgiving the good providence of Squanto should be recognized, and recognized also this other detail most often overlooked in our national birth, the rejection of socialism, and the liberty in personal virtue that led to plenty, health, and Thanksgiving. As well you know, the Pilgrims were contracted by their sponsors into a “common storehouse” system by which all Pilgrims would receive an equal share, after necessity was satisfied, and after the sponsors had been repaid. Well, it happens, as always happens, the lazy continued lazy, the active complained, then the inevitable jealousies, envy, stagnation, and the common storehouse socialism failed. Well, of course. As Governor Bradford observed, the socialist system “was found to breed much confusion and discontent.”
Though I cannot prove it so, I expect that the governor consulted the Bible, as by daily habit he did, and was inspired by this passage, Proverbs 12:11, “He that tills his land shall be satisfied with bread.” Resolved, Pilgrims of the Compact purchased land from the Patuxet, designated lots, and each family served its interest by labor and improvement. “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” 1 Timothy 5:8. Hum. Never thought I would quote scripture, yet, there it is.
Virtue in liberty, Governor Bradford commented, “had very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been,” et cetera. Within a brief space, news of the Pilgrim success spread through Europe, and many came, and many attempted, and many succeeded in repeating the Pilgrims’ prosperity. Something new was born upon the earth, a compact of free citizens united in virtue and determined to live by the Word of God. Early on we recognized the singular importance of our Pilgrim experience and the unique Thanksgiving tradition: in 1777 the Continental Congress declared the first national Thanksgiving, in 1789 George Washington declared the last Thursday in November, a national Thanksgiving.
This month of Greek Revival we have had opportunity to recall The Greek War of Independence, a unifying force that prompted us to embrace our fellow democrats, ancient liberty, and the architectural style that defines all we Classives. And there is this: The Greek word for thanksgiving is eucharistia (as in, Eucharist … as you will remember, the Bible was composed in Greek), “to show favor for what is good, to be thankful, filled with thanks and praise”. The prefix eu, means “good”, and the attached noun, charis, means “favor—grace”. This good favor and grace, a eucharistia, was cause of our Thanksgiving tradition.
There is so very much I would like to tell, of how this tradition of Christian virtue, of fruitfulness, of generosity, of a people resolved to follow the way of God led the free to victory in two world wars, and now to liberation of the world’s majority. Yet here best to dilate on Sarah Josepha Hale, influential editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book who wrote to President Lincoln, urging him to national unification in a time of familial division (alike that we now witness at Thanksgiving table between Classives and Progressives) and revolutionary war. Hale urged the president to inaugurate a “day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival … a Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritive fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.”
And so it is that President Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday of November as “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise.” The proclamation reads:
I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning 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. 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 the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.**
All of that, above, as background to the enjoyment of our Thanksgiving tradition, the uniquely American home-made meal, and Sarah Josepha Hale’s famous “Rich Apple Pudding” Thanksgiving recipe (first published in The Good Housekeeper, 1841):
Peel and core six very large apples, stew them in six table-spoonfuls of water, with the rind of a lemon; when soft, beat them to a pulp, add six ounces of good brown sugar, six well-beaten eggs, a pint of rich cream, and a tea-spoonful of lemon juice; line a dish with a puff paste, and when baked, stick all over the top thin chips of candied citron and lemon-peel.***
As I say, “Yum.” You will find other of S.J. Hale’s recipes in Early American Cookery: “The Good Housekeeper, 1841, and Mrs. Hale’s New Cook Book: A Practical System for Private Families in Town and Country. Oh! Should mention: you already know Sarah Josepha Hale for her poem, “Mary Had a Little Lamb”.
Wishing you all a fruitful, virtuous, and delicious Thanksgiving Tradition.
* * *
* I chose just a wee bit of the hymn to translate and improve … the verse in whole would have distracted from the purpose.
** In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed. Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the Eighty-eighth.
*** I am told that you will need two ceramic or glass 9-inch pie dishes, and that you should serve the pudding as you would a pumpkin pie, sliced, cold or at room temperature.
* * *
A gallery of Thanksgiving tradition penny postcards.