Spicy, aromatic whiffs of pumpkin pie, plum pudding, and candied sweet potatoes mingle with and enhance the hearty, mouth-watering smell of roasted, stuffed turkeys. Thanksgiving, a harvest festival thanking the Creator for a bountiful year, has remained virtually unchanged since the pilgrims in Massachusetts shared that first feast with Chief Massoit and some of his braves.
On Staten Island, as in homes across the nation, people will gather in love and harmony to give thanks. Holiday fare on the Island will not differ greatly from traditional foods, except for the addition of ethnic dishes, such as home-made ravioli, succulent tomato sauce, crusty loaves of Italian bread, lasagne and delectable pastries indigenous to the New York area. In Italian homes, especially, a nine course meal is not unusual.
The turkey will dominate the day, whether served in homes, hospital rooms, soup kitchens for the needy, or meals on wheels for housebound senior citizens. Restaurants across the Island will also defer to the turkey, serving those who wish to celebrate, but hate to cook. Thanksgiving is a holiday that reminds people of the past, celebrates the present, and offers hope for the future; a day that gratifies body and soul.
Although Governor William Bradford, of the Plymouth Colony issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation in 1621, the concept of giving thanks is as old as the need for worship, and dates back to the time when humanity realized its dependence upon a Higher Power.The colonists of Plymouth observed three days of feasting,games and contests following their plentiful harvest in the autumn of 1621. The journal of Governor Bradford describes the preparations for that first Thanksgiving: “They began now to gather in the swell harvest they had, and to fit their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty… Besides waterfowl, there was a great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc… Which made many afterward write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned, but true reports.”
Staten Island, at that time, was a beautiful lush wilderness, sparsely inhabited by the Aqehonga Indians, who fished, hunted deer, raccoon, and fowl, and harvested corn, pumpkins, berries and fruit. Settlers arriving from England and Holland in 1630, added sausage, head cheese and pies to the abundant game and vegetation on the Island. Twenty years ago, it was common practice for butchers to hang plucked turkeys in store windows, while grocers displayed fresh produce and jugs of apple cider.
On October 31, 1777, the Continental Congress appointed Samuel Adams, Richard Henry Lee, and Daniel Roberdau, to draft a resolution “to set aside a day of thanksgiving for the signal success lately obtained over the enemies of the United States.” There solution was accepted on November 1, 1777.
George Washington issued a presidential proclamation appointing November 26, 1789, as a day of general thanksgiving for the adoption of the constitution. The first national Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1863, due to the unrelenting efforts of Mrs. Sarah J. Hale. While editor of The Ladies Magazine in Boston, she penned countless editorials urging the uniform observance throughout the United States, of one day dedicated to giving thanks for blessings received throughout the year. She mailed personal letters to the governors of all the states, and to President Lincoln, persuading many governors to set aside the last Thursday in November as a day of Thanksgiving. Her editorial was titled,”Our National Thanksgiving”, and began with a biblical quote: “Then he said to them, go your way and eat the fat and drink the sweet wine and send persons unto them for whom nothing is prepared; For this day is holy unto the lord; neither be ye sorry, for the joy of the lord is your strength.” Nehemiah, VIII:10
President Lincoln, moved by Mrs. Hale’s editorial and letter, issued the first National Thanksgiving Proclamation on October 3, 1863, which reads in part: “The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of almighty God.” Lincoln designated Thanksgiving as a day “to subdue the anger which has produced and so long sustained a needless and cruel rebellion.” The northern states, in response to the proclamation, held services in churches of all denominations, and gave appropriate sermons.
President Roosevelt, on December 26, 1941, approved the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving, to be observed in every state and the District of Columbia.
The first international Thanksgiving was held in Washington, D.C. in 1909. It was the brain-child of Rev. Dr. William T. Russell, rector of St. Patrick’s Church of Washington. Dr. Russell called it a Pan American celebration, and it was attended by representatives of all the Latin American countries. The Catholic Church was chosen for the services, since Catholicism is the religion of the Latin American countries.
St. Patrick’s Church published an account of the celebration, noting that “it was the first time in the history of the Western World that all the republics were assembled for a religious function…When asked what prompted Dr. Russell in planning a Pan American Thanksgiving celebration, Dr. Russell said, “My purpose was to bring into closer relations the Republics of the Western World. As Christianity had first taught the brotherhood of man, it was appropriate that the celebration should take the form of a solemn mass.” The Pan American celebration continued from year to year.
Some Eastern cities adopted the old world custom of dressing children in the over-sized clothes of their elders, masking their faces, and having them march through the streets blowing tin horns. The children often carried baskets, and solicited fruits and vegetables from house to house to help celebrate the day. This tradition was adapted from an old Scotch wassail custom. The warm, loving atmosphere of this holiday has been immortalized in song, literature, and poetry, such as the well-known poem by Lydia Maria Child: “Over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother’s house we go…”
Thanksgiving signals the onset of the joyous holiday season which continues until New Year’s Day. The only sad note is the number of people killed on the highways each year, en route to their destinations. Thanksgiving also proclaims the arrival of Santa Claus, who assumes temporary residence at the Staten Island Mall, which will be ablaze with Christmas decorations. Those shoppers brave enough to venture out on “Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, can take advantage of Island sales.
Today, more than ever, Thanksgiving is intrinsic to our time. The need to give thanks is profoundly American. As a people, we have pursued idealism, struggled for individual freedoms, and enjoyed the fruits of capitalism. Like the starship “Enterprise” on Star Trek, Americans have “dared to go where no man has gone before.” The act of giving thanks acknowledges the greater force that inspires this nation, encouraging and demanding excellence. This Thanksgiving, when stomachs are bulging with savory, traditional food, and hearts are full with love for family and friends, it is fitting to give thanks.
Stand up on this Thanksgiving Day, stand upon your feet. Believe in man. Soberly and with clear eyes, believe in your own time and place. There is not, and there never has been a better time, or a better place to live. Poem by -Phillip Brooks