In 1620, a band of Englishmen and women, known as Pilgrims or Puritans, arrived from England on a ship called the Mayflower which laid anchor in Plymouth Harbor in the New England state to be called Massachusetts. They were a strange looking group of people to the native Wampanoag Indian tribe upon whose land they had arrived.
The English and the Indians developed strong bonds of friendship. The Indians taught them how to plant and harvest corn, how to hunt for food, how to build shelter from the cold winter winds.
After the first successful harvest in 1621, the 90 members of the new colony and members of the Wampanoag tribe assembled together on the fourth Thursday of November to celebrate the first year of their survival in the New World. It was called a day of thanks-giving, a day of prayer and pious thanks to a merciful God who had protected them and gave their lives meaning.
The women baked cakes and puddings using the produce of their first harvest. The centerpiece of the festive meal consisted of roasting a large turkey, unlike anything ever seen in England, but native to the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
They had much to celebrate. Religious freedom from the Church of England, new friends among the native tribes, success in planting and harvesting, the birth of the first children born on American soil. It was a special day of the year for giving thanks to Providence who had bestowed His rich blessings upon them.
Each year, on the fourth Thursday in November, American families recreate the first Thanksgiving feast with all the ceremonial dignity and rejoicing and the feasting of the traditional meal. Like the Jewish Pesach, whole families assemble on that special Thursday to offer thanks to God for His bountiful blessings.
Today Americans will celebrate their 394th Thanksgiving Day.
The largest department store in New York City, Macy’s, owned by the Jewish Strauss family, in 1924 celebrated what has ever since become the famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade with floats, dances, colorful costumes and balloons marching down Fifth Avenue while more than one million people stand on the sidelines to cheer the marchers on and to take loud and joyous pride in the annual festival parade. Today will be the 91st annual Macy’s parade.
While the first settlers set aside only one special day of the year for thanks-giving, we, the Jewish people, give thanks to God 365 days of the year. Upon awakening each morning, opening our eyes, rising up from a night’s slumber, the Jew’s first words are “modeh ani l’fanecha, melech chai v’kayom”…. I give thanks to you, living king and redeemer…. Thanks for a new dawn, a new day of life, a new day to be shared with loving families. For Jews the world over every day is Thanksgiving Day.
Because the festival was initiated by Christians, Orthodox Jews do not celebrate it as a special day of feasting. However, the origins of Thanksgiving had nothing to do with Christianity. Their prayers and hymns were dedicated to the universal God who had watched over and protected them from physical harm and had provided for their needs during their first year. Thanksgiving Day is not a religious holiday. It is, rather, a national American holiday.
We, in Israel, who consume many kilos of turkey during the year, have not learned the success of the early American pilgrims. We do not roast and stuff whole turkeys served with the accompanying cranberry sauce which grew in the bogs of the Plymouth colony. We raise up our cups with local brewed beer rather than the spiced apple cider which the settlers from England shared with the native Indian tribes.
But however we celebrate and whatever foods we consume and drink, the spirit of Thanks-giving warms us and makes us aware of our gratitude to the Eternal God who watches over us daily.
To all our American friends we extend best wishes for a very happy and peaceful Day of Thanksgiving.