IN late November, New England days are already short. Except for the laggard oak, leaves are down. Gardeners are mulching their beds. Nightly frosts give intimations of winter. If it has any place in the cycle of seasons, Thanksgiving is as much a moment of anticipation of challenges to come as a reflection on the harvest past. For the Pilgrims of Plymouth in 1621, half of whose numbers had perished the winter before, the giving of thanks on the edge of their second winter can be seen today as an expression of spiritual courage. To be better prepared for that second winter, however modest that margin of survival, was reason enough to say thanks.
It must have been a vision of something more real to them than material safety and abundance that could inspire the Pilgrims to gratitude after such hard times, on the margin of a continent whose recesses of forest, plain, and mountain they could not have imagined. They had risked security for an ideal of individual freedom, for the ability to worship according to their conscience.
That ideal would be tested in the coming centuries: Slavery would have to be defeated on the American soil; ideological witch hunts would rage as recently as the 1950s. The immigration of diverse cultural groups produced politics, through much of the 20th century, divided along religious lines. Even today, the issue of ensuring freedom to practice religion, or not practice religion, free of promotion or interference by the state is debated in terms of prayer in the public schools, or the use of public m oney to support parochial education.
That the state feels an interest in affirming the importance of religion in public life is clear from the designation of Thanksgiving as a national holiday -- by the Continental Congress in 1777, by President Washington in 1789 as a day of prayer and thanks to God, and reaffirmed again by President Lincoln in 1863, President Roosevelt in 1939, and the US Congress in 1941 as the holiday settled into its place on the fourth Thursday in November.
So much that has made America great has been the promise of the good that follows the pursuit of conscience.
What will we be thankful for tomorrow?
Will we be so captive of the harvest rituals of the ``good life'' -- the feast of football games, turkey, the traditional post-Thanksgiving start of holiday shopping -- that we neglect to take time in our community, in our home, and in our thought to consider the larger adventure of which we are a part?
Are we thankful for something trivial?
Or for something worth risking half our number?
Thanksgiving should inspire us to trust the daily evidence of divine provenance -- the spiritual qualities of love, beauty, truth, goodness. These are the substance and continuity of our existence. History shows they can lead a nation through the winters of war to independence, through revolution, and to a responsible world role.
And for each of us they promise, whatever the adversity ahead, triumph.