A Real Thanksgiving

Written by Henry Beetle Hough. From the Vineyard Gazette edition of Nov. 19, 1971:

Thanksgiving editorials and proclamations are, in general, too “usual”; there is nothing one needs to know less about in order to produce an appropriate measure of rhetoric. Thanksgiving is able to carry itself and should continue to do so, but just the same I’d like to write something a little apart from the inherited pattern.

Until Abraham Lincoln set the date for Thanksgiving as a national observance in 1863, people had Thanksgiving feasts when anyone was moved to get them up, or when hunger and abundance happened to coincide. Other suitable elements were drawn upon, but the central association was with a full harvest, and this fixed the season of the holiday.

On the front of the agricultural hall at West Tisbury where the fairs are held, there used to be a painted inscription just above the sheltering porch roof: “Honor the Lord with thy substance and with the first fruits of all thine increase, so shall thy barns be filled with plenty.” I wish it were there still, even though most barns have long since been converted to guest houses.

Nowadays we have excellent market gardens, but produce is grown mostly for summer. When October comes we have a paucity of turnips and other root crops, relatively few sheep, usually no hogs at all, and about enough pumpkins to put on doorsteps in observance of tradition, or used for Halloween.

There is no getting away from it; we come to the time of editorials and proclamations and Thanksgiving itself without any harvest of our own, or any real harvest at all. The Harvest, with capitals, has become a symbol, but it is no less important or eloquent or deeply moving than it ever was.

We add to its meaning the events and importunities of the times in which we live, but The Harvest remains always. I find in my researches that the Old Editor of the Gazette, only a year after Lincoln’s call to the first national Thanksgiving, wrote an editorial of which this paragraph was a part:

“Around many well laden tables was found no vacant chair, and as they catered to their craving appetites, we fear that they thought not of the widow and orphan whose husband and father went forth that they might sit under their own vine and fig tree unmolested to enjoy each coming Thanksgiving. Awake, sluggish soul, and consider whence are vouchsafed to you so much of the goods of the earth.”

“The goods of the earth” — for these men sowed and worked and according to the Old Editor, fought. So long as he put in “the goods of the earth” I think it was all right for him to put in anything else he chose.

I suppose I might quote the rhetoric of one of my own Thanksgiving essays written three or four or more generations after that of the Old Editor: “The lesson of contentment, if we could only learn it, would be a good one — and we are as near to learning it as we can ever come on the day of Thanksgiving in ripe November as the late leaves drop and swirl, the sunlight dies early in slanting rays across the cool earth, and the harvest of good things is gathered around us, not only in food to eat but in hearts that are warm.”

Inasmuch as Thanksgiving is a homecoming and a family holiday I agree with the passage as written. But contentment is as far off as it ever was, and late November, even in the country, even on Martha’s Vineyard, brings it only a little closer. Unless, perhaps, we go back to the old blessings, and this, I think, is at last coming to my point; unless we, who perhaps have never known the old blessings undisguised, or hardly known them in the original sense, allow our instincts to take us back further than our memories. Consciousness aside, there are in all of us chromosomes, cells responses, and the echoing awareness of times, climates, environments long ago — harvests, too, in the youth of the race — that can give us the meaning of Thanksgiving.

We live in an age of plenty on a monotonously high level, but for none of these things are we really grateful. They are forced upon us, and we pay for them in that costliest and cheapest currency, money more than ever in this era of high costs.

Browning wrote (and some things are all the better, or at least more convenient, for being taken out of context), “Bubbles we buy for a whole soul’s tasking.” Applied to modern times this must mean the bubbles in the automatic washer or on the television screen. What we badly need for a constructive antidote is the smell of a stable, the look of a corncrib, and much good talk of all ploughing. It is only the old blessings we are now, or can be, grateful for.

I wonder if we might make this as a foundation and starting point and perhaps develop in our present day culture something to stir an original humility and warmth in Thanksgivings to come, remembering the old blessings more securely and bringing them down to date?

Compiled by Eulalie Regan