Despite all that U.S. propaganda, Thanksgiving did not originate with the Pilgrim Fathers in 1621.
Shakespeare makes reference to just such a festival in both Henry IV, Part I (1597) and The Merry Wives of Windsor (1602).
But Shakespeare didn’t invent Thanksgiving either. Thanksgiving, or Harvest Festivals, have always existed in agrarian societies. The Encyclopedia Brittanica tells us that such festivals have been part of British rural society “from antiquity.” So it’s possible that those Pilgrims were simply seeking to preserve a celebration they’d grown up with and known all their lives.
These festivals usually took place at the time of the Harvest Moon. Such a moon is the full moon that’s in the sky near the time of the autumnal equinox — September 23 this year.
In England, this celebration was known as Harvest Home or Ingathering. Both terms are references to bringing in the crops. They’re telling us, “The harvest has been brought safely home.”
Ingathering, first recorded in 1535, is the act of gathering in or collecting, especially as it refers to the harvest. Harvest is defined as, “the reaping and gathering of ripened grain.” Harvest originates in Old Teutonic and came into Old English as haerfest (to crop). The term, Harvest Home, can be dated to1602.
Protestant hymns clearly show the relationship between giving thanks and harvest time. The Methodist Hymn and Tune Book (1925) offers words and music for several Thanksgiving hymns, all of them both lovely and singable. One of these is, Come Ye Thankful People Come. This same hymn is also found in an undated 19th century Presbyterian Book of Praise. The lyrics tell us, “All is safely gathered in,/Ere the winter storms begin.” Both these old hymnals also contain a lovely hymn called, Plough the Fields, the chorus of which is, “All good gifts around us/Are sent from heaven above;/Then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord/For all his love.”
I have always loved these old Protestant hymns because they are so singable, but a friend tells me that
the new Anglican and United Church hymnal has
dispensed with many oldies. How very sad.
A long-time favourite is, Bringing in the Sheaves. This hymn, an American one, dates to 1874 and is classified as “Gospel Music.” We are all familiar with that kind of music, the sort of rousing hymn that invites hand-clapping, swaying in unison, and calls of “Amen” and “Hallelujah!”
Bringing in the Sheaves never struck me as belonging to that category of hymn, but the words emphasize that very thing: “Bringing in the sheaves,/Bringing in the sheaves,/
We shall come rejoicing/Bringing in the sheaves.”
Bringing in the Sheaves was made famous when Tennessee Ernie Ford recorded it. Since then, it has been heard in movies, in TV sit-coms, and has even popped up in a Stephen King novel. Despite all this notoriety, Bringing in the Sheaves is still a hy mn of thanksgiving.
Let’s end with a verse from We Plough the Fields:
“We thank Thee then, O Father,
“For all things bright and good,
“The seed-time and the harvest,
“Our life, our health, our food.”
Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.