Thanks-giving is a political act.
Most American history books—and holiday ads and decorations—link thanks-giving to 1621 Plymouth, Massachusetts, and to pilgrims and Indians. My home state of Virginia, however, claims Virginia as the site of the first thanks-giving, because in December 1619, English settlers sponsored by the London Company landed at Berkeley Hundred with instructions to observe the day of the ship’s arrival “yearly and perpetually as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”
On the other hand, a Texan might place the first American thanks-giving either in Palo Duro Canyon in 1541, with the Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and Teya Indians as participants, or somewhere along the Rio Grande River in 1597, with Spanish explorer Juan de Onate, Native People of that region, and Franciscan missionaries.
What those thanks-giving celebrations have in common is that they followed weeks or months of hardships. In Texas and Massachusetts, many had died of starvation or thirst. What too often gets ignored is the myriad ways in which Native Peoples of all tribes had given thanks on this land for centuries before any Europeans showed up—and the cost to them of the arrival of the Europeans. We would do well to remember that the names of Plymouth, Berkeley, Palo Duro, and Rio Grande are European names, not indigenous ones.
Thanksgiving is a political act.
At the urging of Congress, George Washington declared a national day of thanksgiving in 1789. In the early 1800s, Sarah Josepha Hale, a New Hampshire writer and editor, urged the creation of a national Thanksgiving Day. In 1863, in the bleak middle of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed such a day—though it was not until 1939, under Franklin Roosevelt, that Thanksgiving was set as the fourth (rather than the last) Thursday in November, ostensibly to help retailers by adding a week to the Christmas shopping season.
Thanksgiving is a political act, and any statements about the things for which we give thanks are political statements. I give thanks for my food; I have money to purchase it and transportation to stores that stock fresh fruits and vegetables. I give thanks for my health; I have insurance to help pay for good doctors and the medicines they recommend. I give thanks for the roof over my head; unfair mortgage practices have not cost me my home.
By some reckonings, the average salary of an American CEO today is as much as 185 greater (or perhaps even 325 times greater) than that of the average worker. I wonder what things will make the thanksgiving lists of those CEOs this year. What about those who have lost homes, or jobs? And what about those in the Occupy Movement? What will they say this year when they give thanks? I have to admit that they too are on my list. I give thanks for them, for their non-violent witness and for the ways they have spoken truth to power—and money. Thanksgiving is a political act. It is also an economic one.
And so as Thanksgiving approaches, surely it is right to take stock of our blessings, both individually and as a nation, and to offer God our grateful hearts. But here is my prayer: that out of our gratitude will come not only words but also a more equitable sharing of the resources with which God has blessed us—so that thanks-giving can become a more equitable political act.