Giving thanks

Turkey on the platter, one reason to be thankful. — Bernie Zimmermann/Flickr

Turkey on the platter, one reason to be thankful. — Bernie Zimmermann/Flickr

In "Autumn Across America," published in 1956, the naturalist Edwin Way Teale divides the season in two: the "scarlet autumn" of blazing leaves and lambent sunshine, brisk and energetic, and the "gray autumn" of slate-colored skies and brown landscapes that ushers in a more meditative mood.

As November nears an end, we draw close to the moment when scarlet fades to gray. The trees are looking threadbare now as they shed their crowns of crimson and gold, and the beauty of the flower, as Teale would say, is giving way to the utility of the seed.

Melancholy, maybe - but you might as well regret the rise and fall of the tide or the waxing and waning of the moon. Fall is no real end, but merely a point on a circle.

Still, it seems fitting to me that we should now give thanks, both for the bounty that was and for the riches to come, when spring renews our faith in the inexhaustible cycle of life.

Today many will cast their thoughts back to that "first" Thanksgiving in 1621, when the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags feasted at Plymouth, three days together, on venison, turkey and goose, corn bread, berries and wine. It was an event not to be repeated in New England for nine years, and one not formalized until President George Washington established Nov. 26 as a "national day of thanksgiving and prayer" in 1789.

We Americans have no corner on this market - thanksgiving is an impulse as old as humankind. Pagan that I am, I feel kinship with all the peoples of all the ages who have been moved to express profound gratitude for the earth's generosity.

The ancient Greeks worshipped Demeter, goddess of the harvest, of agriculture and fertility. It was Demeter's grief over the abduction of her daughter, the beautiful Persephone, by Hades, god of the underworld,that set the seasons in motion.

The Romans adopted Demeter, renaming her Ceres. Her first temple was dedicated in Rome in 496 BC, a gesture intended to avert famine and a date generally taken to mark her introduction to the Romans.

In Rome, Ceres was honored in a harvest festival called Cerelia, from which our word "cereal" is derived. Held on Oct. 4, it was celebrated with music, parades, games, and feasting after sacrifice was made to the goddess of the harvest's first fruits and of pigs, an animal sacred to Ceres.

In pre-Columbian South America, in medieval Europe and in the ancient civilizations of Egypt, China and Japan, voices were raised in essentially the same harvest prayer as this one from tribal Africa: "The year has come around again, Great Lord of our land; never can we thank for your good deeds and all your blessings."

The sun, the soil and the rain; the leaf, the shoot and the blossom; the seasons of growth and the seasons of rest - for these things and more, I'm grateful. It is, my fellow earthlings, a beautiful world, and most of its ills are of our own making.

"I do not think of all the misery, but of the glory that remains. Go outside into the fields, nature and the sun, go out and seek happiness in yourself and in God. Think of the beauty that again and again discharges itself within and without you, and be happy."

The speaker is Anne Frank. Friends, let us learn from her.