Henri remembers a somber Thanksgiving and the blessing that began its meal
I loved Thanksgiving as a kid. Not only because of the crisp autumn air and swirling piles of brightly colored leaves, but also because it was the only time of year my father let me out of the house wearing my knee sox and breeches and my little black pumps with the silver buckles.
I also loved the schoolwork. Plays about the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving. Orange-and-brown butcher-paper turkeys, drawn by tracing around our spread-out fingers. Cutting out paper wattles and then pasting them to the cute little thumb-heads.
But one year everything changed. On Thanksgiving Day, 1963, my father and I silently watched the Macy’s parade from the couch while my mother—alone in the kitchen—prepared the turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes and corn, her only concession to her own traditions the croquembouche to serve with the pumpkin pie. We ate later than usual that evening, my father refusing to turn off the television. Finally, sometime after dark, after watching President Johnson announce to the country that Florida’s NASA Launch Operation Center would be renamed the John F. Kennedy Space Center, he stood, held my mother for a moment in his arms, and went to the table.
Then we all bowed our heads, and my Catholic father, first in French then in his broken English, said Grace:
“Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts which we are about to receive from Thy bounty, through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
“And God bless President Johnson,” my mother added.
Already, even as a fourth-grader, I had my doubts. Was there even Anyone there to bless anything anyway? What were we thankful for again?
Later, I would also question what I’d learned about the first Thanksgiving itself. While the Wampanoag Indians possibly did in fact introduce the Pilgrims to corn and turkey—and might have supplied some venison—our image of a joyful 1621 multicultural Thanksgiving feast is largely myth. Most likely, the Indians ate in the shadows. And the turkey dinner? Actually, the Pilgrims, settling so close to the coast, probably enjoyed the bounty that the sea provided: cod, herring, lobsters, clams, eels.
Two and a half centuries later, President Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday. He hoped it might help to heal the country’s wounds, festering during the divisiveness and bloodshed of the Civil War. It was 1863. Exactly one hundred years before Kennedy was shot—and the year my father’s words rang so hollow.
Now, 40 years later, I’m beginning to understand that it doesn’t much matter what’s said, just that something honest and true be said. And I am thankful to my father for trying to show me that. The Catholic Grace is among thousands of different blessings that people make all over the world. Some to thank whom they see as their Provider. Some to bless that which they are eating and to express gratitude. Some simply to reconnect with each other—to be thankful for family and friends. Some to pray for healing.
During Ramadan, fasting reminds Muslims that food was given to them by God and they are to share with those less fortunate. In Islam, God is thanked silently before each meal.
Buddhists, believing in the interconnectedness of all things, are grateful for the intimacy of connections made through eating. A Hebrew blessing begins, “Blessed are You, O Lord our God, Eternal King, Who feeds the whole world,” and traditional Native Americans thank the Creator for providing the animals and vegetables that they eat.
This Thanksgiving, if you are among the fortunate who will sit down to eat with friends and family, take a moment to articulate your own blessing, in whatever manner and words you find appropriate. Be grateful—for companions and for food and shelter, and for who or whatever you feel has provided them. Remember, too, that you are among the few, and that good fortune should be shared.
The Pilgrims knew that. On December 12, 1621, Edward Winslow concluded a letter describing that first Thanksgiving by writing, “And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”
For more on blessings from around the world, see 100 Graces: Mealtime Blessings, selected by Jack and Marcia Kelly (Random House, 1997).