by Timothy Hall Breen
GREENSBORO – Let’s face it: Thanksgiving Day is in peril. After all, how can we sustain a holiday that involves manipulating indigenous people who were already compromised by contagious diseases introduced by European settlers? In fact, the whole tradition is based on a single letter written by a Pilgrim leader who felt threatened by local Native Americans. Not exactly firm evidence in support of a national holiday.
But before we scrap the traditional Thanksgiving Day – doing so would be a commercial disaster in a modern consumer society – we might consider that during the Seventeenth Century there were many thanksgiving days celebrated, often several a year and none commemorating a romanticized Pilgrim feast. When a community – largely in New England – felt that it had something for which to be thankful, it held a thanksgiving. Communities recognized God’s blessing. Perhaps there had been a bountiful harvest, or a ship arrived carrying needed supplies. The event made sense in a highly religious culture. For these people a formally scheduled thanksgiving day – a Thursday every year in late November – insulted the Lord. To do so meant that ordinary sinful men and women could predict in advance when the Lord would deliver good times. But God had his own reasons for acting, and when he brought prosperity to the faithful – whenever it occurred – it was their responsibility to show gratitude. Prosperity was not something one could take for granted.
But then, we might ask, what happened when things did not go well. What did one do when ships were destroyed in storms? Or when locusts ravaged the grain in the fields? Or when contagious disease such as smallpox killed scores of neighbors?
The answer was what we might label an un-thanksgiving. The early settlers called these unhappy moments days of humiliation. The members of the community gathered to reflect on what they might have done to anger the Lord and by doing so, had caused the sinking of ships or the sudden sickening of so many people. Somehow God’s children had failed. It was their responsibility on a day of humiliation to discover the errors of their ways. Perhaps they had placed material comfort before religious obligations. Perhaps they had become too self-centered, thinking more about their own economic advancement than about the teachings of Scripture.
It is impossible to know if the people really thought that their behavior – sleeping through a sermon or wasting time with friends, for example – was responsible for the Lord’s punishment. Perhaps that was not the key issue. By coming together, by spending an entire day reflecting on how they might have fallen away from Scriptural teachings, they reinforced community ties. Even when faced with extraordinary perils, they reaffirmed a willingness to support neighbors by admitting and reforming their own failings. According to the Reverend Samuel Willard, the goal of these local rituals was to find “repentance of, and humiliation for what is past, and reformation for the future.”
In a more secular culture, the notion that people would come together to confess how they had put self before community would have no traction. And to do so spontaneously as a specific response to some shared disappointment would attract no support. Not even the spread of Covid or fear of global warming could achieve that end. It is much easier to blame others for setbacks than to accept group responsibility. In modern times a call for public humiliation would seem an invitation to ruin a good meal and interrupt watching a football game.
Perhaps there is room for compromise. Even on a scheduled thanksgiving day – every November 25 – we might merge thanks with humiliation, a sense of joy for personal and family success with a recognition of our inability to prosper without other men and women in our community. And perhaps we might even devote a minute to contemplating what we as individuals might do to remove the dark clouds that once called for days of humiliation.