Monday, January 08, 2007


In early evening at this time of the year, three of the four stars called by the ancient Babylonian Magi "the royal stars" can be seen. These four stars dominate each of the four quarters of the heavens (and were therefore the "princes" of those quarters according to Babylonian astrology), but at the Christmas season all but one of them can be seen at once. Fomalhaut (in Piscis Austrinus, below the Great Square of Pegasus) is low in the southwest, almost setting, while Regulus (the bright star in Leo) is rising almost due east. And Aldebaran (the bright star in Taurus) is almost exactly at its midpoint in the sky. While the ancient world called the host of heaven "gods", the medieval Christian world knew the celestial host to be God's servants. In light of the discussion below about Epiphany, it seems particularly appropriate that these "royal stars" studies so diligently studied by the ancient pagan gentile nations now announce, like the Three Kings of the Orient, the season of the celebration of Christ's birth and manifestation to the nations.


The Christmas Season is over. Christmas has had a pretty varied history -- by the end of the first millenium it had become so important in the Christian world that it began the church year, although in the tenth century Advent became the beginning. Throughout the high middle ages Christmas was hugely popular, widely celebrated, and a major influence on Christian life - and it was celebrated *as* a Christian feast, not just an occasion for merrymaking. However, the Reformers tried to tone down the crowding of feasts in the calendar and what they saw as a worldly and supersitious excess, and in the seventeenth century the Puritans almost completely obliterated it -- in some instances both in England and America there were punishments for taking the day off! Since the church celebration was suppressed, the merrymaking continued in homes and communities without the church connections, and in later centuries (not until the mid or late eighteen hundreds) when there were revivals of the Christian (not just civil and popular) celebration of Christmas, they were seen as "new" rather than as the very old keeping of Christmas that dates back to the early church.

Epiphany is the end of the Christmas season. It's sometimes called Twelfth Day (hence Twelfth Night the evening before) because it's the twelfth day from Christmas. The famous Twelve Days of Christmas are those from Christmas to Epiphany. They include the Feast of the Innocents (commemorating the slaughter by Herod of the children), the Feast of the Circumcision (commemorating Jesus' parents keeping the law by having him circumcised on the eighth day), and the Feast of Stephen (commemorating the first martyr). Epiphany itself began in the very early Eastern church as a nativity celebration but by the middle ages it became, in the Western church especially, a declaration of the manifestation of Christ to the nations as the Hope of the Nations. The Magi were Gentiles, and thus represented the nations, and so in Christian story they became kings, who are heads of their people, because of all the prophecies of kings bringing their kingdoms to the Messiah: "kings will walk in the brightness of thy rising."

So Epiphany is a glorious celebration of the King of the Nations, the Ruler of the World, the Eternal Augustus, the Everlasting Princeps, whose empire has no end in time or space. When we pray "Thy kingdom come", we should remember that Christians have already been praying that for two thousand years and the answer to that prayer was immediate (Already) and is still growing (Not Yet). In his birth, life, death, and resurrection, Jesus Christ triumphed (past tense) over his enemies, and He will reign till He has put all His enemies under His feet, and that will indeed happen. He wins, they lose. Epiphany is a wonderful time to remind ourselves that that phrase in the Lord's Prayer MEANS SOMETHING. This is 2007 A.D. -- In the Year of the Reign of Our Lord and King Jesus Christ. He owns the world.


The word "courtship" has become a buzzword in American evangelical Christian circles but the variety of conceptions attached to it is breathtaking and often leads to serious misunderstanding. The best way to get a grip on what a word means is to look at how it's been used in the past, so let me drag down my Oxford English Dictionary (thank you, Schola students!) and Oxford Latin Dictionary.

The word "court" comes, originally, from the Latin word for a garden or plot of ground, "hortus". From that came the word "cohort", which was a tenth (approximately) of a Roman legion, or the number that would fit in a certain plot of ground (a garden of soldiers! like the Greek myths of sowing teeth and growing men). From there the word grew, through the late Roman world and the middle ages, to mean a legal jurisdiction (law courts), or the area (garden, plot of ground) from which a king and his cohort ruled, and from there to mean the reverence or homage offered a king or ruler when standing in his garden, plot of ground, cohort, court. And from there the word expanded metaphorically to mean the homage offered, as to a king, to any person of power or influence (or beauty) whose favor you desire, and of course that may include the young lady with whom you are so desperately smitten.

So "to court" is to seek to win favor. When you go into a king's court, you and the king do not mutually court each other - the king isn't seeking your favor, you're seeking his. You have to do all the work and you hope he buys it. Likewise, young men and women do not court each other, though one often hears the mistaken phrase "we're courting". No, courtship is something the man does, hoping the girl will buy it. If she does, the courtship is over and now they get engaged. Courting is the attempt. If the much-desired favor is already won, there is no more attempting, there is only negotiation -- for the contract, for the position in the king's retinue, or for the wedding date.

Furthermore, just as several men may seek to win a particular favor at the king's hand but only one ultimately wins (or several companies may legitimately seek to win a fat contract but only one can succeed), so several young men, in theory, can court a young lady at the same time. Courtship is *not* engagement. If there is an expectation of commitment on both sides then there is no courtship - the relationship has moved beyond courtship to something else. Courtship is what the guys do, and the girl owes nobody anything until she chooses. If she already has a favorite (and lets it be known) there is no more courthship - one of the guys has already won. On the other hand, if the king discovers that the seeker of his favor is also courting another king elsewhere, the first king is perfectly justified in tossing the seeker out on his ear. Likewise, though the young lady may have several simultaneous suitors, it doesn't work the other way round -- they had better not be pursuing some other young lady elsewhere. The lady is not committed during courtship, but the man is. If a girl's father gives a feller permission to court her, he is not excluding the possibility of other young men also courting her.

We can use words any way we like, but we have no right to expect others to understand us. The common ground we can all appeal to in order to understand what a word should mean, or at least what it *does* mean, is it's history.


You can find more discussions of the history of Christmas in books and on the internet than you can shake a stick at, were you so inclined. There are interesting arguments about the date of Christ's birth (probably not December 25, but so what?); about when and where Christmas began to be celebrated (early or mid fourth century in Rome, spreading to the Eastern churches soon thereafter); about the propriety of the church establishing holy days in the calendar where pagan festivals used to be (more on that in a coming issue of Scholegium, but I say the more of that sort of thing the better!); about the legitimacy of enjoying cultural myths like Santa Claus (the original, real St. Nicholas is said to have physically slapped down the heretic Arius at the Council of Nicaea... so be good for goodness sake); and about the value of church traditions (liturgies, festivals, etc.) that are not explicitly mentioned in Scripture (since they're literally unavoidable, the real question is how, not whether, to use them).

But the fact remains that the Christian church throughout history, with some exceptions here and there, has used Christmas to highlight a central fact in our common faith -- that the second person of the Trinity, God Almighty himself, became a man in the reign of the emperor Caesar Augustus, in one of Caesar's recently acquired territories in the eastern Mediterranean, being born miraculously of a young Jewish virgin (the early church held her to have been about 12). When Mary's cousin Elizabeth calls her the "mother of my Lord" or when doubting Thomas calls Jesus "my Lord and my God" they were witnessing to the fact that he who was born of Mary was not just a man but Almighty God himself as well. This is why Mary was called Theotokos (God-bearer) by the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon in the mid-fifth century -- not because they thought she was the originator of the essence and fullness of deity, but because she gave birth to him who was not just a man, but God and man in one person. This is also why Athanasius said that God became man so that man might become God -- not because he thought we would share ontologically in the divine essence (c'mon, the guy was smarter than *that*!) or because he was a Mormon, but because he believed with Peter that we "become partakers of the divine nature" through our union by faith with Him who united our humanity and God's divinity in his own person. If this last bit (called "theosis" by our Eastern Orthodox friends) seems a little too weird to us Protestants, note that our own John Calvin was quite happy with it (see for example So who was born? GOD was born. Or, to be more accurate, the One Who was born was God.

If Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, was not both very God and very man without mingling or alteration of either, then the celebration of Christmas is meaningless as a Christian commemoration. As Paul said of the doctrine of the Resurrection, if it's not true then our faith is in vain and we of all men are most to be pitied. But if he *was*, then our celebration of Christmas ought to be a little less frantic and a lot more joyful *and* triumphant.


The star mentioned by Matthew which indicated to the Magi the location of the Child Jesus has been the subject of debate since, well, since Matthew wrote. St. John Chrysostom, in his Homily on chapter two of Matthew, says that the star must have been supernatural, not one of the natural celestial phenomena. If this is the case, astronomers can have nothing to say about it. But many other people, including of course astronomers, have argued that it was a natural phenomenon. There were some conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn in the years around Christ's birth, and in one of them, Jupiter also evidenced retrograde motion where it appears to stop. It would, in this particular instance, have stopped over Bethlehem. But it would have appeared to have stopped over quite a bit more territory too - Bethlehem is a pretty small target for a planet to indicate.

But most of the discussion completely ignores the other celestial phenomena that night -- the host of heaven that came down that night to sing at a bunch of stunned shepherds. The phrase "host of heaven" is used in the Scripture of both celestial bodies and of the angelic armies. When the heavenly host -- the stars -- came down to sing to the shepherds, those shepherds didn't see a lot of wispy, night-gowned, golden-haired beauties. They saw a warband, the Armies of God, whose songs probably sounded like Alfred the Great's Saxon armies shouting terrifying renditions of the Psalms before wading into the enemy and chopping off their heads. The host which the shepherds saw were the sort that might have had "82nd Airborne" tattooed on their biceps and sleeveless leather vests, with chains and bandoliers and sawed-off shotguns clanking in the night air while they sang mighty whoops of "Glory to God in the highest!" in a chorus that made the roughneck shepherds turn to terrified jelly.

Was this a conjunction of planets? No. The stars came down to earth and then when they were done terrorizing the shepherds they went back into heaven "from whence they came". The stars. Ok, yes, I know, but there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosopy.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007


The last essay argued that we do not leave history behind but rather we add layers to it, just as a growing tree does not leave behind it's earlier growth but adds new outer layers, accumulating a greater bulk and solidity. The past, all of it, is our life; it's our foundation and what gives meaning and solidity to the present. To dismiss the past as irrelevant is like wanting to keep the branches of a tree hanging in mid-air and growing while chopping away the trunk. It's absurd.

But let's think a little further about this. We moderns tend to think that the present alone is important and the past irrelevant; and it's not surprising that we think that way because we are exceedingly arrogant creatures who believe that if we live in this age it must therefore be important. But in fact it is the other way around. History -- the STORY -- is all there is and all that is important, and the present is just the very tiny, relatively insignificant outer edge, one more onion-thin layer increasing the massive edifice that we call history. Our time is one more chapter added to the growing book. Our own present significance we will never know; only those who come after us will be able to judge about us. It's only when you turn the last page of a book that you can assess it; it's only when the credits roll and the music swells importantly and the people get up and stumble up the aisles over the popcorn buckets at the end of the movie that you can evaluate the movie fairly; it's only when Croesus dies that Solon can say anything about the happiness of his life as a whole. Count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last, says the Chorus at the end of Oedipus the King. Likewise, we in the present are utterly unqualified to judge of the importance of our own age and all its works. The age is not over yet, not enough time has passed; we're too close to the detail and far too emotionally involved.

But we can study the past far more dispassionately and with far more help. Unlike the present, the past is fixed and stable. Whether our view of it is equally stable is another question, but the past is done changing. And the past has context -- not only did the fourteenth century happen, but so did the fifteenth, and so the fourteenth century has context because it has a before (the thirteenth) and an after (the fifteenth). It's the middle of something to which there is also a beginning and an end. We, on the other hand, have a before but we have no after... yet. We're the middle of something to which there is beginning but no end that we'll ever see. So we don't have enough context to study ourselves well -- but the past does.

Of course this way of viewing history and the present is flawed, because all ways of seeing things with our finite biased perspective are flawed. Our knowledge of anything in the past is continually changing as new information comes to light and new theories better account for the epicycles and we become more aware of our own ignorance. But to say that this view is flawed is not to say that it's wrong. To begin with, God Himself expects us to study and learn from and remember the past. It's precisely the failure to do this that God warned His people against in the Old Testament, and that brought them so much misery when they didn't listen, and that the Church is warned against all over again in the New Testament. "These things were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come."

And to see history this way -- to see it as more knowable, and therefore more usefully studied for wisdom than the present in the thick of which we are so deeply mired -- is to begin to have just exactly that wisdom that we need in order to get through the mire of the present. We don't ignore the present -- but we can't do anything about it till we've learned to live in the past.


We live at the end of history. But so does everyone who has ever lived or ever will. If Charlemagne had drawn a timeline on a blackboard, where would the line have stopped? At his time, of course; so he lived at the end of history. If someone a thousand years from now draws a timeline, his will stop at his time and we will be somewhere along the line well before the end. He too will be living at the end of history.

Every ring in a tree trunk was once the outside edge, and what is outside today will be inside in a few years when there is a new outside that we do not yet see. In the same way, history is a living thing that is growing, with the present simply adding to it, like the tree whose outer layers are alive and grow and add to the tree's size, while the inner layers, though technically dead, still support the whole tree. History is a living, growing thing that nourishes us who are its outer edge and we depend on it for our life, just as the outer, living edge of the tree trunk depends on the inner "dead" layers for its support. History is a tree.

Time, like an everflowing stream, bears all its sons away (to quote a poet, one of our own) but not into nonexistence. The water in a river is borne away constantly, but not into nonexistence; it goes into that vast holding tank we call the ocean, which is a continuous living thing. In the same way, time bears all things into the great holding tank called history, which is a continously living and growing thing. History is an ocean.

We ought not to think of the past as dead, and only our time real, for when did history end and the present begin? Is yesterday history? Is this morning history? How about a minute ago? Are those part of history? The present moment is so fleeting, so evanescent, that it's meaningless; we do not really live only in the present moment, but rather we live in the present moment as the front edge of all our growing past experience which is our real life. Our experience, constantly, is made up of memory of what has gone before--a few seconds ago, five minutes ago, yesterday, fifty years ago, a thousand years ago.

If we remember to think this way, then all of history is part of our life, and though we experience the growing edge, we belong to all of the life of man; we are inhabitants not of the present moment which ceases to be present as soon as we're aware of it, but we are inhabitants of all of history; and to ignore the past is to ignore the largest part of our own life.

Sunday, December 17, 2006


In early to mid evening these days the great Square of Pegasus is visible high in the southwest. By 10:30 it's above the western horizon, sitting on one corner. If you know where Cassiopeia is (look high and to the left of the North Star), draw an imaginary line from the North Star through the leading star of Cassiopeia (the lowest one) and you'll draw it through the Square of Pegasus. Beneath the Great Square is the Circlet of Pisces, a circle of dim stars quite a bit smaller in diameter than the Great Square of Pegasus is wide. Below and to the left of the Circlet is the point on the sky where the sun is at the exact moment of spring on March 21 - this point on the sky is called the Vernal Equinox. It's at this point that the sun crosses the celestial equator on its annual movement north for the summer. Its an imaginary point so you can't see it, but you can identify it roughly.

Right between the Circlet of Pisces and the Vernal Equinox is a tiny cross, too faint to see with the naked eye but you can easily see it with binoculars if you look in the right place. The cross is surrounded by a ring of double stars, like so many gems encircled a diamond. No star chart indicates a name for this beautiful pattern, because it's invisible to the naked eye, so I have called it the Crux Gemmata: the Jeweled Cross. It seems fitting that just as the sun reaches the end of an old heavenly year and begins a new one, it passes by the foot of a cross. "And he hath put all things under his feet," including the year.

You can see a rough diagram here (with the cross drawn in - there are four stars marking the four points of the cross):

Thursday, December 14, 2006


If you follow this blog and get some benefit or pleasure from it, you're welcome to subscribe to the SCHOLEGIUM email newsletter. I send it out approximately twice a week (midweek-ish and weekend-ish) and it contains a snippet of the sort that appears in this blog, as well as a tidbit about the night sky, and occasionally other random things that occur to me. If you'd like to try it out, just go to the Schola homepage and click "Scholegium newsletter" in the left pane. You'll find information on how to subscribe as well as the archives so you can see what you'd be getting in your inbox. You can always unsubscribe if you can't stand it.


In the Bible, signs in the heavens reflect catastrophes in the powers of the earth or in the spiritual realm. The prophet Joel predicts stars falling from the sky, and Peter says in his Pentecost sermon in Acts 2 that Joel's prophecy of the stars' falling was fulfilled that very day. No one in Peter's audience looked up at the sky and muttered, "I don't see any stars falling," because everyone understood apocalyptic imagery. The Magi saw the star foretold by Balaam in the book of Numbers and knew from studying the heavens that a King was born in Judea. No one in Herod's court thought *that* was weird - what upset Herod was the king bit, not the star bit. But - perhaps because of a well-founded caution concerning ungodly astrology, and perhaps because of the skepticism and even mockery of unbelieving science - we moderns have forgotten that the stars are still signs, as Genesis 1 says.

On July 4th in the year A.D. 1054 a supernova appeared in the daytime sky and was visible during the day for nearly a month; at night it was as brilliant as the full moon at first, and it continued to be visible for nearly two years. Astronomers say that its brilliance was four to six times greater than that of Venus and that it burned with the power of four hundred million of our suns; if it had been fifty light years distant from us (six times farther than Sirius, the brightest star climbing the east in mid-evening now) instead of thousands of light-years, its radiation would have destroyed all life on earth. The Chinese recorded its appearance, saying it had rays in all four directions and a reddish-white color. The Anasazi Indians of the American southwest made cave paintings (White Mesa and Navajo Canyon in Arizona; Chaco Canyon National Park in New Mexico) at the same time, depicting a star near a crescent moon - and on the morning of July 5, 1054, the crescent moon would have been just 2 degrees north of that new "star's" position in the sky.

Now look up the etymology of the word "disaster" - and then read on.

Exactly twelve days later, on July 16, the Eastern and Western branches of the the universal Christian church officially split when Cardinal Humbert, an (illegally acting) ambassador of the pope in Rome, stormed into Hagia Sophia, the greatest and most glorious church in Christendom, and slapped down a bull of excommunication on the altar in the middle of the Saturday afternoon mass, the culmination of centuries of tension building between Eastern and Western Christianity over a variety of issues. A terrified young deacon picked up the paper and ran after Humbert, begging him to take it back but he stomped off, dropping the bull in the dust. The Great Schism began that day, a schism in which each side, Western Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, leveled excommunications at each other that were not officially lifted for nearly one thousand years, until late in the twentieth century.

The star that suddenly exploded into a supernova, burning over the newly torn Christian world, left a remnant which to this day is called the Crab Nebula (M1 for astronomy types), visible in amateur telescopes just one degree northwest of Zeta Tauri, the star marking the tip of the southern horn of Taurus, the Bull, one of the constellations of the zodiac. To see the spot, go outside in mid-evening and find Orion. Trace a line through his belt up and to the right. The line will strike Aldebaran, the bright star in Taurus's forehead (a small V of stars with the open end pointing to the left), and if you continue the line, you'll hit the lovely and rather fuzzy Pleiades nearly overhead. Run your line the other direction through Orion's belt, down and to the left, and you'll hit Sirius, the brightest star in all the heavens, low in the southeast. Now, go back to the Pleiades and follow the line down to Aldebaran, then go off to the left at a right angle about the same distance as Aldebaran is from the Pleiades, and you'll strike Beta Tauri, the tip of the northern horn of Taurus. Now go about a third of the distance from Beta Tauri down toward Betelgeuse, the bright star marking Orion's upper left shoulder, and you'll find Zeta Tauri, the tip of the southern horn of Taurus. Got it? The Crab Nebula is one degree back toward Beta (about the width of your finger when your arm is outstretched).

You won't see the Nebula with your naked eye, but you can mark the spot where the Heavens flared in anger, and continues to carry a scar, over what never should have happened: a great breach in Christ's church on the earth beneath.

Thursday, November 30, 2006


The Pleiades, Aldebaran, Orion, and Sirius together form one of the most beautiful sights in Deep Heaven. At this time of year, the beginning of Advent, they rise in the east, one after another, a vertical ladder of celestials announcing the season. The Pleiades are the lovely cluster of jewels in mid-heaven just after dark and high overhead by midnight, said by the ancient Greeks to be seven sisters, princesses, daughters of Zeus, and considered throughout much of western civilization to be the sign of the beginning or end of the sailing season. Both the book of Job and the poet Homer mention the Pleiades. Rising directly below them is the brightest star in the forehead of Taurus the Bull, Aldebaran. It’s one of what the ancient Babylonian Magi called the Four Royal Stars, each guarding one quarter of the heavens. Below red Aldebaran is Orion, the great Hunter, already climbing the sky in the evening, magnificently straddling the celestial equator. And rising below Orion by late evening is Sirius, the Dog Star, brightest star in all the heavens. As Sirius rises, watch it scintillate. “Scintillation” is the mercurial flashing and twinkling that any star does, due to the effect of the atmosphere through which the light rays must pass, but Sirius is so bright that its scintillation is most pronounced, and if you watch you’ll see all the colors of the rainbow flashing as it climbs the sky.

Stone-cold above our hunting halls,
The Hunter stalks his awful Prey;
A voice across an aeon calls;
The Hounds obey.

The Princess rides above the curse
In lofty lands where ages meet,
The Jewels Of The Universe
Beneath her feet.

And through those vast and brilliant fields
Our circling shadow slowly swings;
The momentary glimpse it yields
Gives longing wings.

From mighty Thrones, unmeasured height
And utter depth hear Wisdom's voice;
Eternal dark and blinding light
Therefore rejoice.

Unheeding worlds crawl on below,
Yet reaches vast with voices ring;
From endless Wisdom, wisdoms flow—
The Mighty sing.


I have on my shelves a nice, although somewhat weathered, green cloth hardback copy of C. S. Lewis's Surprised by Joy. Inside the front cover is handwritten "Collette Harrison, New York City, 1967" and there is an address label in the lower right corner of the same page reading "Mrs. Collette Harrison, 1160 Third Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021" That address is about 4 blocks east of lower Central Park, a very nice neighborhood.

Collette Harrison was the first wife of famous actor Rex Harrison (My Fair Lady, Doctor Doolittle, etc.). In 1967 they had been divorced and he was on his 4th marriage (the third wife died, the other marriages also ended in divorce, and he would be married twice more, for a total of 6 before he died in 1990 at the age of 82.

So Collette Harrison was living in Manhattan, keeping her famous former husband's name (meaning she probably hadn't remarried, as her maiden name was Thomas). And I've always wondered what she thought of C. S. Lewis, and of his wonderful account of coming to faith. Lewis had died 4 years earlier and was not yet particularly famous outside of Christian circles, so it's not likely to be something she picked up idly at a bookstore -- was she searching, lonely, bitter? Did she have a Christian friend who gave her this book? Was she moved by it, did she reject it in anger and later fall on her knees in repentance and is now our sister in Christ? Or did she just read it and find mild interest and amusement and then set it aside on her shelves? As Dante would put it, Was she following in a light cockle shell or was she seeking the bread of angels?

Whenever I think of Rex Harrison, or My Fair Lady, I immediately think of his cast-off first wife Collette. (I dont' know the circumstances, but in every failed marriage it is the husband who is going to be held responsible by God at the last day, no matter whose sin was first or greatest.) And I remember that she read (or at least owned) Surprised by Joy and was at some moment in her life thinking of Christ.

(repost from Friday, Dec. 10, 2004)

Friday, November 24, 2006


The birthrate among the ethnically European population of every European nation is well below sustainable rates. This is not just a European trend, this is worldwide. The U.S. is the only nation in the first world with a birthrate at sustainable levels (2.1 live births per woman), and this includes Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. In the third world, there are high birthrates - Africa, for example, but it's being devastated by AIDS and other problems. Many nations of Latin America also have below-sustainable-level birthrates. China likewise has a birthrate well below sustainable levels so it's not likely to be the superpower in the next century that some of us thought it would be, no matter how fast it moves toward western-style economics or even Christianity (although growing Christianity there could reverse the birthrate problem), and Japan's birthrates are way too low for her to survive very long. Russia? Way low. Mediterranean countries? All the non-Muslim ones are way low.

What populations are increasing? Muslim ones. While populations in every first world nation except the U.S. are dropping like a rock, Muslim populations worldwide are exploding.

Rousseau said that a state's numbers and population is the surest sign of its preservation and prosperity. Rousseau was woefully wrong in many ways, but he was on to something here; so guess what culture will be preserved and prosper worldwide in the next century?

Thursday, November 23, 2006


The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock on December 11, 1620. That first bitter winter killed nearly half their number, but according to William Bradford's book, "History of Plymouth Plantation," there was plenty of food in the summer of 1621, and according to Bradford and Winslow in "Mourt's Relation" they invited the Indian friends who had helped them to join in a three-day feast in autumn of that year. Bradford says there was available in the country around "a great store of wild Turkies," along with ducks and geese. Some people say that the word "turkeys" refers to any wild fowl, but Bradford distinctly mentions both. This feast (which was not called a "thanksgiving") was not repeated the following year, which was a hard one. But in the summer of 1623, during a severe droght, the pilgrims gathered in a prayer service, praying for rain. When a long, steady rain followed the very next day, Governor Bradford proclaimed another day of Thanksgiving, again inviting their Indian friends.

Another pertinent point that Bradford makes is that when the colony first began in winter of 1620, the work and the fruits of the work were all communal. While this may have been an economic and social necessity in the beginning, for survival's sake, it quickly broke down, because there was little motive to work when you didn't benefit from your work. Bradford trashes Plato for his idiotic scheme in the Republic - the Pilgrim's experiment disproved the theory of socialism, and after they reorganized economically such that everyone had their own farm to work (they still didn't own it but could benefit from their own labor) the productivity increased greatly.

On June 20, 1676, the governing council of Charlestown, Massachusetts, instructed Edward Rawson, the clerk, to proclaim June 29 as a day of thanksgiving. This thanksgiving celebration probably did not include Indians, for we read in the proclamation expressions of thanks to God for recent victories over "the heathen natives". Relations between colonists and Indians were breaking down. This is the oldest extant American Thanksgiving proclamation.

During the 1700s, it was common practice for individual colonies to observe days of thanksgiving throughout each year. Later in the 18th century each of the states periodically would designate a day of thanksgiving in honor of a military victory, adoption of a state constitution or a bountiful crop. For example, a Thanksgiving Day was held in December of 1777 by all 13 colonies nationwide, commemorating the surrender of British General Burgoyne at Saratoga. These observations were not repeated as yearly events; they were one-time celebrations. And a Thanksgiving day for most of American history was generally a day set aside for prayer, repentance, and fasting, not a day marked by plentiful food and drink as is today's custom, although it might be associated with another separate celebration day; and the word "holiday" meant a "holy day", not just a day off from normal affairs as is the connotation today.

George Washington's proclamation of October 3, 1789, the year of his inauguration as first President of the United States of America, represents the first to be so designated by the new national government of the United States of America. That same year, the Protestant Episcopal Church, of which President Washington was a member, announced that the first Thursday in November would become its regular day for giving thanks, "unless another day be appointed by the civil authorities." On January 1 of 1795, Washington called for another Thanksgiving Day to be held February 19 of that year. There was some opposition to the idea of national days of Thanksgiving, as there was discord among the colonies, many feeling the hardships of a few Pilgrims did not warrant a national holiday. Later, President Thomas Jefferson scoffed at the idea of having a day of thanksgiving.

During his administration, President Lincon issued many proclamations for days of Thanksgiving: for example, on November 28, 1861, he ordered government departments closed for a local day of thanksgiving. Again, these were one-time events. But on October 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation calling for the observance of the lastThursday of November each year as a national holiday. This holiday, the one we now celebrate annually as Thanksgiving, was recommended to Lincoln by Sarah Josepha Hale, a prominent magazine editor, whose efforts eventually led to what we recognize as Thanksgiving. Hale wrote many editorials championing her cause in her Boston Ladies' Magazine, and later, in Godey's Lady's Book. Finally, after a 36-year campaign of writing editorials and letters to governors and presidents, beginning in 1827, her efforts paid off. One of her letters to Lincoln urged him to have the "day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival." According to an April 1, 1864 letter from John Nicolay, one of Lincoln's secretaries, the actual Proclamation document was written by Secretary of State William Seward, and the original was in his handwriting. Fellow Cabinet member Gideon Welles recorded in his diary on October 3 that he complimented Seward on his work. A year later, the manuscript was sold to benefit Union troops and since then has disappeared.

It was after this holiday was established as an annual event that it began more and more to be celebrated as a feast - in part because of the growing immigrant population of the U.S. which absorbed the legends of the founding of America and combined them with their own delight in the prosperity of their new country. Already in the 1880s descriptions of Thanksgiving feasts and how to prepare them begin to show up in newspapers and magazines.

In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved this annual holiday to the third Thursday of November to extend the Christmas shopping season and boost the economy. Thanksgiving had been celebrated on the last Thursday of November, according to President Lincoln's proclamation, but that had normally been the fourth Thursday, though this was not specified. However, in 1933 and again in 1939, there were five Thursdays in November, and people normally didn't start Christmas shopping till after Thanksgiving, so there were fewer shopping days till Christmas on these two years and business leaders around the country were upset. So in 1939 FDR moved Thanksgiving to the 23rd rather than the 30th, but this upset small businesses who feared losing out to larger ones, calendar-makers who had to plan years ahead for production, and traditionalists who were positive that the Pilgrims had celebrated Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November (which of course really only dated back to Lincoln). Individual states established Thanksgiving, some on the 23rd and some on the 30th, which was even worse, as families in neighboring states often had different Thanksgivings and couldn't celebrate together. So after a storm of protest, in 1941 Congress changed the holiday to the fourth Thursday in November (rather than the last Thursday in November, although the two are usually the same) where it was finally sanctioned as an offically recognized civil holiday. On November 26 of the following year, FDR proclaimed Thanksgiving and asked Americans to follow Congress's lead.

Every Thanksgiving proclamation made in the history of the American colonies and states has included terms of penitence and gratitude toward God, recognition of His sovereignty and chastisement in times of affliction, and appeals to the people to keep Thanksgiving on these same terms. The only exception is the last one - FDR's - which does not include expressions of repentance or recognition of affliction as God's chastisement.

Unless things change radically, it is impossible that any proclamation of a day of Thanksgiving will ever be made again, and if one is, it will certainly not include expressions of penitence or even gratitude to the God of the Bible, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. President Bush contributed to our growing inabililty to do so as a nation when he participated in the religiously pluralistic service at the National Cathedral shortly after 9/11. To make a proclamation such as Washington, Lincoln, or FDR did would bring cries of outrage from every quarter for it would radically offend the current state religion of our country.

A page including the text of these early proclamations can be found here.