The saying of thanks is as old as the history of man, but it is significant that here in America the spirit of giving thanks to God for all things good has blossomed into a meaningful observance, a special day meant to encompass both personal response and national purpose.
No one knows when the custom was born. Primitive tribes returned praise and tribute to their deities for the bounties of nature. Since man has tilled the soil, the harvest has been the climax of the yearly cycle and autumn the time of joy and plenty when it seemed most appropriate to give thanks.
Secular and religious writing reveals that early civilizations participated in a thanksgiving festival. The Hebrew feast of Tabernacles acknowledges both the escape from Egypt and the bounties of the soil, and is still faithfully observed as Sukkoth. The nine-day festival of the ancient Greeks in honor of Demeter, goddess of the cornfields, featured sacrifices of fruit, honey and milk. The Romans made much of their harvest festival.
In the early Christian era, the custom continued to be observed widely and with new meaning. The “harvest home” of the English countryside is one of the finest survivals, a folk festival in which a religious spirit of gratitude prevails.
Here in the United States, however, we have used the festival to create an official and universally observed Thanksgiving Day — an annual religious holiday set aside by people and government for the express purpose of giving thanks to God for all His goodness. The Pilgrim Fathers, founders of so much that is highest and best in our way of life, gave us the spirit and the pattern for this great American institution.
In looking for lessons and meaning in the Plymouth Rock experience as guidance and inspiration for today, we recall that most of the Mayflower passengers perished in the first terrible winter of 1620 but the survivors never faltered in faith nor in thankfulness for the blessings of that first good harvest.
There is value in reviewing the attitude and expression of the heart of the Pilgrims as they prepared the feast and observed the formal giving of thanks. They went into the forests and invited American Indians, some friendly and some potential enemies, to partake of the bounty and join in the spirit of the occasion.
Thus was the American spirit of giving thanks expressed, and of this spirit came our officially declared and nationally observed Thanksgiving Day. There is no secret that its purpose is to give thanks and praise to God for His blessings.
Neither is there any secret, we think, that a true spirit of thanks includes extending our blessings by sharing them with others. A blessing not shared is a blessing denied its total capacity for good, a blessing from God that is shackled in its outreach by our smallness of heart.
We who are blessed with health must tend the sick. We who are whole in body should encourage the lame. Those with a strong mind and a vibrant spirit must comfort and help the weak. If a measure of happiness has been showered upon us, let us express our thankfulness by showing sympathy and understanding to the grieved. Our blessings of material support should be shared with our neighbors who have less bountiful provisions.
In so doing, we who are recipients of God’s goodness become channels of blessing to others — thus giving feet to our words of thanks and wings to our prayers of praise.