Thanksgiving family

November 26

The First Thanksgiving (1621):
A Secular Celebration

It was on this date, November 26, 1941, that U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law a bill establishing the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day in the United States. Although today this thoroughly American holiday is commemorated by church services and family gatherings, and Presidents George Washington (a Deist) and Abraham Lincoln (a skeptic) both issued religious proclamations in honor of the day, amazingly enough, Thanksgiving Day was originally a secular celebration.

The first Thanksgiving, in honor of a bountiful harvest, was in the fall of 1621 — sometime between September 21 and November 11. It was attended by the 50 surviving Mayflower immigrants, including Myles Standish, and 90-some Wampanoag Indians, under Chief Massasoit, including Squanto (Tisquantum), who spoke fluent English. But the Pilgrims of Plymouth colony had a very strict definition of what constitutes a religious holiday. To the Pilgrims, a thanksgiving was a religious holiday for going to church and thanking God for a specific blessing. The three days of feasting, dancing, singing and game-playing would not have fit the decorum dictated by piety.

Many cultures and most older civilizations had harvest festivals, and the English of the 17th century were no exception — although they would not have celebrated the fecundity of the earth as older traditions did by demonstrating the fecundity of sexual union! It's a safe bet that there were prayers at the first thanksgiving, but the occasion didn't take on a religious overtone until much later in its history. And those who would complain that the Christian God is being divorced from teaching about Thanksgiving seem quite comfortable is repudiating the god of the Wampanoag Indians, who — except for Squanto, who had been kidnapped a decade earlier, sold into slavery by Christians and forcibly converted — failed to adopt the narrow creed of the Pilgrims.

Whatever became of the thanksgiving day of the Pilgrims up to modern times, the Pilgrims themselves would not have seen it as a Christian holiday. The chief virtue of Thanksgiving Day is that it can just as easily be celebrated without the plastic veneer of piety, if you and yours happen to be happy and healthy. American Freethinkers celebrate Thanksgiving Day simply as a day of gratitude that loved ones can be near and prosperity is at hand. But there is no reason to raise your hands to God when so many of our fellow human beings need a hand!

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Charles M. Schulz


Charles M. Schulz (1922)

It was also on this date, November 26, 1922, that the creator of Snoopy, Lucy, Charlie Brown and the other characters of the "Peanuts" comics world, cartoonist Charles M. Schulz, was born in St. Paul Minnesota. There is little dispute that Schulz, or "Sparky," as his friends called him, started out his 50-year-long "Peanuts" run — which appeared in over 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries — with a gently if unabashedly Christian world view. WWI Flying AceIndeed, Schulz allowed Robert Short to publish The Gospel According to Peanuts in 1965. He was a church member until the day he died, on 12 February 2000, and even taught Sunday school.

But Schulz was not your garden variety Christian, or as pretentious as "BC" creator Johnny Hart. In 1963, Schulz told Salon Magazine, "Once you accept Jesus, it doesn't mean that all your problems are automatically solved." In 1999, shortly before his death, Schulz was even less religiously inclined, saying, "I despise those shallow religious comics. 'Dennis the Menace,' for instance, is the most shallow. When they show him praying — I just can't stand that sort of thing, talking to God about some cutesy thing that he'd done during the day." It was Charles M. Schulz who said, "The term that best describes me now is 'secular humanist.'"*

* 1999 interview, Sonoma County (Calif.) Independent.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance writer.
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