My historical novels Rebel Puritan and The Reputed Wife, Herodias (Long) Hicks Gardner Porter, colonial New England, travels, and whatever else seizes my fancy...

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Feast or Fast?

The “First Thanksgiving” in 1621 was nothing new.  Days of thanksgiving were regularly held in Europe long before Plymouth’s Pilgrims had their famous feast.

However, it was the first day of thanksgiving held in New England, and the Pilgrims – or Saints, as they called themselves – certainly had cause to celebrate.  They had survived a perilous crossing, famine and disease which halved their numbers, forged good relationships with their Wampanoag neighbors, and harvested enough food to keep them alive for another winter.

On what date did the Pilgrims and Wampanoags begin their three days of feasting?  It is not known.  Some time between September 18th and November 11th, William Bradford wrote in his journal about the “First Thanksgiving,” held after the Pilgrims had gathered their “small harvest” and prepared their homes for winter.  Neither Bradford nor Edward Winslow, who also described the event, recorded the exact date, but this is Winslow’s account:

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, among other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed upon our governor, and upon the captain, and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.

Days of Thanksgiving were regularly held in New England after 1621 to thank God for good harvests, victories in battle, the safe arrival of ships, and even Puritan victories in England.  The index of Governor John Winthrop’s journal mentions eight of them held in Massachusetts between 1630 and 1649.

Winthrop’s journal index does not list the somber twins of Thanksgiving - days of fasting, prayer and humiliation.  They may have been too frequent to enumerate.  New England's General Courts regularly ordered days of prayer to beg for God’s help with sickness, foul weather, earthquakes, Indian threats, and poor crops.

Days of humiliation sent the colonists from the fields to the meeting house to discover their personal sins, to praise God, and to beg His help with their woes.  Oddly, sometimes the Puritans held days of thanksgiving even when their crops were poor, as though they dared not alienate God by mourning the disappointing harvest that He had seen fit to provide.

Days of Humiliation continued long after the colonies became the United States of America.  In April 1863 Abraham Lincoln declared a day of national humiliation, fasting, and prayer to beg delivery from “the awful calamity of civil war, which now desolates the land, [which] may be but a punishment, inflicted upon us, for our presumptuous sins … [and ask that God restore] our now divided and suffering Country, to its former happy condition of unity and peace."

Later that year, Lincoln set our familiar annual Thanksgiving Day as the last Thursday of November.  Nearly a century later, on April 17, 1952, President Harry S. Truman formalized a National Day of Prayer on the first Thursday of May, an updated version of the good old-fashioned day of humiliation and fasting.

What of Christmas?  Since that celebration is not found in the Bible, the Puritans associated it with idol-worship and paganism, but that is a tale for another day.

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