Although Thanksgiving is observed by Americans of all faiths, as well as by those who are not religious, this day on which we gather in our gratitude for all that we have been given, comes to us from the very beginnings of our national experience. It is an observance with deep roots in the Christian belief and piety of our forebearers who came to this country.
We have observed Thanksgiving Day as a national holiday in the United States since 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln set apart "a day of thanksgiving and praise." He chose the last Thursday in November to coincide with the date of the first Thanksgiving in 1621. It was in November of that year when a small group of English settlers - also known as Pilgrims - in Plymouth, Mass., gathered to praise and thank God for an abundant harvest after a harrowing year of privation and hunger.
Before coming to the New World, the Pilgrims had lived in the city of Leiden, in the Netherlands. According to historians, the people of that Dutch city celebrated an annual thanksgiving in commemoration of the lifting of the siege of their city in October 1574. The inhabitants of Leiden were starving and on the verge of surrender when the siege ended and to this day Oct. 3 is a day of celebration and thanksgiving. In Plymouth, the families who celebrated the first Thanksgiving also did so with great joy. With a good harvest they would have enough food for the winter. Their gratitude and thanksgiving grew out of their reliance on God's gifts and blessings. It was the consciousness of their profound need that prompted them to praise and thank God for their deliverance from hunger.
It is easy to take God and God's many gifts for granted when all is well in our lives. Sometimes, we only turn to God in times of sickness, sorrow and great need. But this holiday is an opportunity to foster a grateful spirit and to receive the blessing that comes from gratitude to God.
This holiday gives us an opportunity to reflect on what we are most grateful for: our children, our husband or wife, our families and all those who we love and who love us, the gift of life itself and this beautiful and marvelous world that God has placed us in.
Here in Juneau we can be particularly thankful for the natural bounty and beauty that surrounds us; for the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimsian peoples, the first inhabitants of this place; for all who make up the generous and caring community that we belong to; for a robust and healthy economy, in contrast to so many communities in other parts of the country experiencing economic distress and high unemployment; and for those who risk their lives on our behalf, our police and firefighters and our men and women in the armed forces.
On Thursday, families gathered throughout our community for Thanksgiving dinner will pause for a few moments to give thanks to God. If you, or your family, do not regularly pray before meals and would like to say grace together, try this one:
"Good and gracious God, we thank you for the goodness of our people and for the spirit of justice that fills this nation. We thank you for the beauty of this land and for this community. We thank you for our work and our rest, for one another and for our homes. For all that we have spoken and for all that we keep in our hearts, accept our thanksgiving this day. Amen." (Household Blessings and Prayers, USCCB, 1989).
Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.