Thanksgiving and charity

Charity – call it aloha – played a crucial role in the first American Thanksgiving celebration.

Although not unique to Western culture, thanksgiving or harvest festivals have been held in many countries for hundreds of years. In Hawaii, the Makahiki season, stretching over several months, was a kind of thanksgiving.

The U.S. observance is usually traced to the survival of the Pilgrim colony in Massachusetts after a brutal and nearly terminal first year in the New World. The Pilgrims landed on a hostile shore in 1620 with very limited skills for surviving in the new land.

That first Thanksgiving in 1621 was made possible by the indigenous Wampanoag despite having experienced other encounters with whites who sometimes raided their villages. According to the Fourth World Documentation Project, the Wampanoags’ religion “taught that they were to give charity to the helpless and hospitality to anyone who came to them with empty hands.”

The Wampanoag taught the Pilgrims how to build shelters, when and how to plant corn and beans and how to trap and hunt to keep from starvation. At that first American Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims gave thanks for the harvest and for the friendship and “aloha” of the Wampanoag.

The first declaration of a national celebration of giving thanks was issued by President George Washington in 1789. Succeeding presidents did not follow suit until 1863 during the bloody Civil War when President Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November a day to give thanks for “the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.”

Congress made Thanksgiving, on the fourth Thursday of November, a national holiday in 1941. Two weeks later, the United States was at war.

Today, U.S. personnel are in harm’s way around the world and Maui has its share of problems but there is still much for which to be thankful. As Maui’s families gather today, we should all be aware of those less fortunate and resolve, as the Wampanoag did, “to give charity to the helpless and hospitality (aloha) to anyone” who comes to us “with empty hands.”

* Editorials reflect the opinion of the publisher.