Remember spirit of the first Thanksgiving Print
Thursday, Nov. 26, 2015 -- 12:00 AM

As we celebrate Thanksgiving this week, we might want to reflect on the origins of that national holiday.

The pilgrims observed what we consider the first Thanksgiving to thank God for the blessings they received during their first year in America.

Why did the pilgrims come to this new land in the first place? The answer to that question has some bearing on our current discussions about whether to accept refugees from other countries.

Who were the pilgrims?

The pilgrims came to this country to escape religious persecution. The word pilgrim is derived from the Latin word peregrinus, which means traveler on a journey to a holy place.

In 1607 after breaking from the Church of England, the pilgrims actually settled in the Netherlands. They remained there for 10 years.

However, due to fears that they would lose their English language and heritage, they made plans to settle in the New World.

In 1620, they joined a London stock company that would finance their trip aboard the Mayflower merchant ship. After a voyage of 65 days, they reached the shores of Cape Cod and eventually landed in December on what they would call Plymouth Harbor.

More than half of them died during the first winter. In the spring, they came in contact with Squanto, an English-speaking Native American. In addition to interpreting and mediating between colonial leaders and Native American chiefs, Squanto taught the pilgrims how to plant corn and where to fish and hunt.

The first Thanksgiving

In the fall of 1621, the pilgrims shared a harvest feast with the Native Americans, which lasted for three days. This is now considered the basis of the Thanksgiving holiday.

It has been celebrated as a federal holiday every year since 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

The United States has a history of accepting refugees from many lands. Some, like the pilgrims, were escaping religious persecution. Others have been refugees of wars, famine, and disease. Others — like my Irish and German ancestors — came here seeking a better life for themselves and their families.

Accepting refugees

Now we come to Thanksgiving of 2015. Because of terrorist attacks in various parts of the world, many countries — including the United States — are concerned about accepting refugees, especially from Syria.

However, I agree with the head of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration when he said he was disturbed by calls from federal and state officials for an end to the resettlement of Syrian refugees here.

“These refugees are fleeing terror themselves — violence like we have witnessed in Paris,” said Seattle Auxiliary Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, chairman of the migration committee. “They are extremely vulnerable families, women, and children who are fleeing for their lives. We cannot and should not blame them for the actions of a terrorist organization.”

In a statement issued November 17 during the bishops’ general assembly in Baltimore, Bishop Elizondo offered condolences to the French people, especially families of the victims of the November 13 attacks in Paris in which at least 129 people were killed and hundreds were injured. He said he supported “all who are working to ensure such attacks do not occur again — both in France and around the world,” reported Catholic News Service.

Bishop Elizondo said refugees coming here “must pass security checks and multiple interviews before entering the United States — more than any arrival to the United States. . . . We can look at strengthening the already stringent screening program, but we should continue to welcome those in desperate need,” he said.

Pray on Thanksgiving

I encourage people to attend Mass on Thanksgiving Day and to pray for peace in our world. We should also pray for a welcoming attitude towards refugees.

Let’s remember the spirit of the first Thanksgiving and the words written by Emma Lazarus on the pedestal below the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”