Out of the Pages: A history of giving thanks

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PITTSFIELD -I like holidays like Thanksgiving. What I don't like is how commercial they've become.

Thanksgiving used to be a day for reflection, a time for families to gather together. It still is. But recently the day's meaning has changed because the holiday shopping season seems to start earlier and earlier every year.

In Berkshire County and the rest of Massachusetts we don't have to deal with retail chain stores opening on the holiday because our blue laws prevent it. Some stores here still open early in the morning on Black Friday, but even that tradition will be reduced in the Berkshires this year. The Lee Premium Outlets, which started the Midnight Madness craze in the county a few years ago, won't open until 6 a.m. this year. They are one of only three Simons Mall properties in Massachusetts that won't open at the stroke of midnight.

But several other chain stores in the Berkshires will still be keeping early morning hours. When commercialism intrudes in this manner, it's easy to lose sight of what Thanksgiving really stands for. So, here's a little history

First, of all Thanksgiving is not a uniquely American holiday. You might know that Canada celebrates its own Thanksgiving, on the first Monday of October, which is our Columbus Day. But Thanksgiving celebrations also take place in Grenada (Oct. 25); Liberia (the first Monday in November); St. Lucia (first Monday in October); and Norfolk Island, an external territory of Australia (the first Wednesday in November). In The Netherlands, Thanksgiving is not a public holiday, but it is observed by orthodox Protestant churches in that country, also on the first Wednesday in November.

In North America, celebrations of Thanksgiving were usually held as a day of the thanks for both the blessing of the harvest and the preceding year. The origins of Thanksgiving in this country are traced back to the Pilgrims, who held a harvest ceremony at their colony in Plymouth in November 1621, a year after they arrived in the New World. But it is believed the Pilgrims may have gotten the idea for Thanksgiving from church ceremonies that they observed while living in The Netherlands before sailing for North America. The first Thanksgiving at Plymouth actually turned out to be a one-off event because harvest festivals in this country didn't actually begin until the 1660s.

Thanksgiving-harvest type festivals were commonplace in the early years of the United States, but the dates tended to vary from state-to-state. By the beginning of the 19th century, most of these festivals were being held on the last Thursday in November. The first time it was celebrated on the same day in this country occurred in 1863 due to a proclamation from Abraham Lincoln. The president became intrigued by the campaigning of author Sara Josepha Hale, who had been badgering politicians about setting a specific date for Thanksgiving since the 1820s.

Lincoln also believed that setting a specific date for Thanksgiving might also restore a semblance of unity to the United States, which was in the midst of the Civil War. But apparently, the idea didn't go over big in the South. The Confederacy refused to recognize the president's proclamation, and an official national date wasn't set until the reconstruction of the southern states was completed in the 1870s.

It took until 1941 for Thanksgiving to officially be scheduled on the last Thursday in November through another presidential proclamation this time by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The idea was that celebrating the holiday then could give the economy an economic boost.

Canada didn't have a fixed date for Thanksgiving until 1872. The origins of Canadian Thanksgiving date back to 1578. Explorer Martin Frobisher, who was trying to find the Northwest Passage tor the Pacific Ocean, held a ceremony that year to celebrate his safe journey from England to North America.

From Frobisher to the Pilgrims, Lincoln to Roosevelt, Thanksgiving in North America has long roots. If you have that day off I hope that you enjoy it.

Tony Dobrowolski is the business editor of The Berkshire Eagle. He can be reached at tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com

     

The repercussions are still occurring, and will occur for awhile. But now it's time to set it all that aside and give thanks.

That might be difficult for some to do now, given their political leanings,. But Thanksgiving gives everyone the chance to do that.


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