ANNAPOLIS – Almost 400 years ago, Pilgrims celebrated a successful harvest, peaceful co-existence with their Indian neighbors and survival with a day of thanks — the holiday we now know as Thanksgiving.
With the terrorist attacks this year, the debate as to whether the holiday is religious or secular is leaning more toward the theological side, say clergy and academics, but it is still a bit of both.
“One of the things about Thanksgiving is that it is one of the holidays that lends itself to generalization,” said James Grubb, director of religious studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “Every major religion has its moments of thanksgiving, but this is one that can be shared.”
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore said church attendance has substantially increased since the attacks, and estimated that trend will continue during the normally active holiday season.
Church attendance figures have increased 27 percent, said Grubb.
Although Thanksgiving has its origin in the 17th-century Protestant religion, the 1941 federalization of the holiday has made it more secular, and celebrated by Americans regardless of faith.
“I don’t think that one necessarily has to be a religious person to be gracious,” said U.S. Navy captain and senior chaplain Luther Alexander. “It is something that all Americans can celebrate if they are willing to reflect on the blessings that they have received or enjoyed — whether it’s been health, or an opportunity to share a holiday with their family.”
The winter of 1620 was brutal for the Pilgrims. A cold winter killed more than half of the original settlers and delayed establishing a settlement. The next harvests were inconsistent. Finally, on Nov. 29, 1622, the Pilgrims held the first Thanksgiving to celebrate their successful harvest.
New York adopted Thanksgiving Day in 1817 and many states followed before President Abraham Lincoln and future presidents adopted it. President Franklin D. Roosevelt set the official date as the fourth Thursday in November.
Christian clergy agree Thanksgiving has become more secular since, but everything starts with God.
“We do have our secular images of parades, but it certainly has retained (the religious images),” said the Rev. Lawrence Waudby, of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. “I hope this year there is more of a focus on prayer and even the nationalistic sense on what we have before God on Thanksgiving.”
God is the central figure in all we do, said the Rev. Eddie L. Henry, of Trinity Methodist Church in Annapolis.
“First, we thank God for all he has spared us from,” Henry said. “We thank our president, we thank our nation for getting behind the president. We thank our military. It’s kind of like a never-ending story.”
Individual faith is a key component of Thanksgiving, Alexander said.
“Thanksgiving, more than other holidays, reflects the heart of the individual who observes it,” he said. “I am a Christian and I look at this opportunity to offer thanks to God for my blessings. The person who is very patriotic may have a heart of gratitude because they are able to live in a country where they can enjoy freedom.
“You can look at it from any number of ways. For some people who are big sports fanatics, it’s an opportunity to enjoy a day full of football,” Henry said.
The terrorist attacks have redefined the traditional gratitude of thanksgiving, said Waudby.
“I do think this Thanksgiving as a national holiday will be a time of prayer for the freedoms we do have,” he said. “(People) will be more conscious that it is truly a time to give thanks.”
Although the holiday’s roots were with a devout people who came to the country to practice their faith, Thanksgiving has gradually secularized, which makes the festival an “odd duck,” said Grubb.
“I’m interested to see if this surge will bring the holidays back to a religious focus,” he said. “Will this be a lasting trend or a momentary reaction?”
Thanksgiving’s flexibility is what makes it such a great holiday, said Kelly Denton-Borhaug, Goucher College chaplain and professor of religion.
“It celebrates in a religious fashion for those who have religious commitments and in a secular way for those who don’t have religious commitments,” she said.
“It has moved far beyond its origins of Christianity. It has expanded to embrace the plurality that is the United States.”