Advent has come quickly this year. It is a season of anticipation, of looking forward to the fulfillment of divine promises. Yet, it doesn’t seem right to move on from Thanksgiving to Advent just yet. With time moving so quickly, it is important not to shortchange the opportunity that Thanksgiving provides, which is to remember. Unlike the anticipation of Advent, the gratitude of Thanksgiving is a backward-looking virtue, and a necessary counter-balance to our modern tendency to fixate anxiously on the future.
The first Thanksgiving celebration took place 400 years ago, in 1621, a year after the arrival of the Pilgrims to the New World. The Pilgrims had decided to leave Europe, where their Puritan ways were deeply unpopular, and sailed into Cape Cod Bay in late December, landing at what became the settlement of Plymouth. With little food and shelter and the outbreak of serious illness, the Pilgrims suffered greatly that winter, losing half their community. That spring they were approached by leaders of the local native tribe, with whom they entered a treaty and engaged in trade. The natives helped the Pilgrims survive in the frontier, and that fall they celebrated together the Pilgrims’ first successful harvest in the New World, which became our traditional Thanksgiving holiday.
Thanksgiving remains a memorial celebration, a feast of remembering past blessings, including those which may not have been apparent at the time, but only in hindsight. Surely, there must have been moments of grief during the first Thanksgiving feast when remembering those who did not survive that first year. Nonetheless, it remained vitally important for them to give thanks to God and eschew embitterment by helping each other to recognize how the Lord was with them all the while. We do that too by sharing memories of loved ones, remembering what gifts they were to us, and living in hope of future reunion with them in the life to come (please God). And we express gratitude for all of the other blessings of life, including the gift of life itself.
On the importance of remembering to be thankful at all times, St. John Henry Newman writes: “Let us humbly and reverently attempt to trace [God’s] guiding hand in the years which we have hitherto lived. Let us thankfully commemorate the many mercies He has vouchsafed to us in time past, the many sins He has not remembered, the many dangers He has averted, the many prayers He has answered, the many mistakes He has corrected, the many warnings, the many lessons, the much light, the abounding comfort which He has from time to time given.”
With this in mind, Thanksgiving must not be just a day of eating too much and watching football as we prepare for a marathon shopping spree. It is a day of remembering past blessings which strengthen our hope for the future fulfillment of promises. Thus, when we celebrate it well, this backward-looking feast of Thanksgiving is great preparation for the forward-looking season of Advent and anticipation of blessings to come.