Thanksgiving: an Origin Story

This time next week many of us will be enjoying Thanksgiving meals, often with extended family. Some of us will be serving meals in shelters. The youth of the church will have delivered boxes of food to former guests at our 13 Salmon Family Shelter. As religious people, both the expression of gratitude for the blessings in our lives and the call to serve and to share our bounty are important.

The Thanksgiving holiday has roots in harvest traditions shared by cultures around the world and in the European American history of New England. Most of us know the idealized story of the Puritans and that first Thanksgiving they shared with the Wampanoag tribe.

The Puritans and the Pilgrims are our religious ancestors, though liberal religious folks have for some time been trying to re-tell that history with the beginnings of a shift toward a Native American lens. In 2016, the UUA General Assembly passed a resolution entitled, Thanksgiving Day Reconsidered,” which calls us to begin telling more of the truth of the genocide and theft of land that made possible European colonization.

Professor George Tinker, Professor of American Indian Cultures and Religious Traditions at Illiff School of Theology in Denver, writes: “America has a European history of violence that has been unaccounted for and even at times rigorously denied. … When the first Europeans came to the Americas—the Spanish to the Caribbean, the English to North America—they came with clearly preconceived notions of conquering indigenous peoples, and theological and intellectual grounds for justifying and legitimating their exercise of violence. In New England the Puritans were the ‘new Israel,’ self-righteously displacing the aboriginal Canaanites [the native peoples].”

We speak today of the Beloved Community rather than the “City on the Hill.” But the Eliot family that gave our church its first two long-serving ministers were believers in Manifest Destiny. We are only stumbling toward an appropriate accountability to the indigenous inhabitants of the land on which our church and this city stand.

How deep are the Unitarian roots of the Thanksgiving holiday? Here is a story that I’ll bet few of you know:

Thanksgiving was first declared a national holiday by President Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, at the height of the Civil War. It was what some historians call “the invention of a tradition.” Lincoln saw the promotion of this holiday as one part of the birthing of a new American nationalism following the carnage of the war.

He was responding to a 17 year campaign by Unitarian Sarah Josepha Hale. Yes, our religious fingerprints are all over even this element of the American narrative. It was letters from Sarah Hale to Lincoln that convinced him to call for a national day of thanksgiving.

Sarah Hale has a remarkable list of credits to her name in addition to the Thanksgiving holiday: She is the author of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” edited the very popular Godey’s Lady’s Book for 40 years, led fundraising for the Bunker Hill monument and the restoration of Thomas Jefferson’s Mt. Vernon, and penned an early (and commercially successful) anti-slavery novel.

Today, telling a more accurate narrative about thanksgiving is part of the same impulse that is calling for the renaming of Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples Day. It is part of the same impulse that called so many Unitarian Universalists to support the Standing Rock Sioux.

As we approach Thanksgiving, I will be giving thanks for the many blessings in my life. But I will also be thinking of responsibility and how so many of the blessings I enjoy came at the expense of others.

Professor Miguel De La Torre: “Perhaps it is more accurate to speak of the responsibility of restitution rather than the virtue of hospitality.”

Responsibility. Restitution. Reparation. These are not “feel good” concepts. We would rather speak of reconciliation. But I wonder if reconciliation will ever be possible if we have not been willing to acknowledge the reality of responsibility and imagine some way to make good for the damage we have done.

May the need for restitution be part of your prayers of gratitude on this holiday with its very Unitarian roots.