Benjamin Franklin wanted the national symbol to be not the bald eagle, which he regarded as little more than a handsome scavenger, but reputedly the most intelligent bird - the turkey. Oh, how we have changed.
Today, if someone calls you a turkey, you know he holds you in rather low esteem. And, of course, on Turkey Day, we are wont to consume rather much - too much - of the bird that bears the day's name.
On Thanksgiving we are wont, as well, to gather around a table in one of the culture's diminishing rituals. Such rituals used to be bedtime books and/or stories, and prayers - the sort of repetitive, familiar routines that inspire in children insatiable delight.
Rituals offer families a precious feeling of solidarity, something our forebears well knew. They organized their lives around Sunday morning church, Friday night Sabbath dinners, ceremonial unfurlings of the flag, or post-prandial group readings each night. We are left now with few such rituals, of which Thanksgiving is by far the foremost - the time when, more than any other, in ways actual and symbolic we do come home.
About Thanksgiving, the matter of firstness seems to fascinate - a question to which definitive answers are stuffily offered in cornucopia abundance.
There's a strong Spanish claim, of course. On April 3, 1513, Ponce de Leon landed on Florida's coast probably somewhere between the St. Johns River and Cape Canaveral. Other Spanish explorers reached Florida in 1527. On Sept. 8, 1565, Don Pedro Menendez Aviles went ashore at what is now St. Augustine, Fla., near the present-day Mission of Nombre de Dios and the Fountain of Youth archaeological park. Fellow traveler Barcia wrote in his journal that Menendez "invited the Indians to a feast."
The Spanish also founded Santa Fe in 1609, and they easily could have supped with Indians, or not - as could have Eric the Red and other Vikings who landed likely in the Maritime Provinces centuries earlier, thanks in part to a benevolent Odin.
But British settlers get the most attention - and, rightly or wrongly, credit. The Raleigh expeditions and the lost colonists in the 16th century probably prayed thankfully for deliverance. Ditto those who landed several decades later and celebrated thanksgivings at Cape Henry, Va., (April 29, 1607) and Popham, Maine (Aug. 9, 1607). Colonists declared an annual thanksgiving holiday at Berkeley Hundred in Virginia in 1619. Pilgrims held a first Plymouth ("Plimoth"), Mass., thanksgiving in the early 1620s.
The Continental Congress proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving in 1777, in the evident hope that the states would refrain from going with their own on different days. George Washington did the same thing in 1789. Abraham Lincoln formally established a national holiday in 1863, designating the last Thursday in November as THE day. So, as to stimulate business by providing six additional pre-Christmas shopping days, Franklin Roosevelt offered a new deal whereby he changed the Lincoln policy to the fourth Thursday in 1939 - a change ratified by joint congressional resolution in 1941.
Along the way, there have been uncountable quotes about the meaning and importance of the day. Among them:
Ralph Lane to Sir Francis Walsingham on Aug. 12, 1585: "Of thys her Maiesties newe kingdom of Verginia: All the kingedomes and states of Chrystendom theyere commodytyes joyegned in one together, do not yealde ether more good, or more plentyfulle whatsoever for publyck use yes needefull, or pleasinge for delyghte."
Lieutenant Colonel Henry Dearborn, an officer in the Revolution, probably in the winter of 1777: "This is Thanksgiving Day ... but God knows we have very little to keep it with, this being the third day we have been without flour or bread. ... Upon the whole I think all we have to be thankful for is that we ... are not in the grave with many of our friends."
Washington's 1789 declaration:
"I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th of November next, to be devoted by the people of these states to the service of that great and glorious Being Who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be - that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks - for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed - for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted - for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge."
Lincoln's 1863 declaration:
"Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlement, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the most high God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy."
Woodrow Wilson's Thanksgiving proclamation, in 1918:
"This year we have special and moving cause to be grateful and to rejoice. God has in His good pleasure given us peace. It has not come as a mere cessation of arms, a relief from the strain and tragedy of war. It has come as a great triumph of right. Complete victory has brought us not peace alone but the confident promise of a new day as well, in which justice shall replace force and jealous intrigue among the nations. Our gallant armies have participated in a triumph, which is not marred or strained by any purpose of selfish aggression. In a righteous cause they have won immortal glory and have nobly served their nation in serving mankind. God has indeed been gracious."
George Bush's proclamation, this year:
"We gratefully give thanks this year for the beauty, abundance, and opportunity this great land offers. We also thank God for the blessings of freedom and prosperity; and, with gratitude and humility, we acknowledge the importance of faith in our lives. ... As we welcome new opportunities and face new challenges, we are thankful for the resolve and generosity of so many of our people who are touching countless hearts and souls through thoughtful acts of kindness. ... We also honor and salute the selfless sacrifice of the brave men and women of our Armed Forces who are defending our lives and liberty at home and abroad with skill, honor, and dedication. This Thanksgiving, we recognize the ties of friendship and respect that bind us together."
Some history and compelling quotes for reflection as we gather in solidarity 'round the table and engage the delectable - intelligent - bird.