Shortly after I moved to Blacksburg in 1966, I saw an unusual family cross Main Street. They were respectfully dressed in worn clothes.
The unusual feature was that they were very thin and had the “pinched” features common to some forms of malnutrition. I sized them up as a family who lived on a subsistence farm. These were families, common in earlier times, who lived on what they could raise on small farms.
City people have had a myth that farmers have a lot to eat. Unfortunately, that has not always been the case. Farmers frequently had enough food to survive but not of high nutrition.
We, who live in the midst of abundant food supplies, have no idea of what it was like for people of the distant past. Some forms of agriculture started about 11,000 years ago, but modern humans (Homo sapiens) were around about 200,000 years before that time.
Before agriculture our ancestors lived in small bands of hunter-gatherers who depended on finding nuts, berries and game to survive. After agriculture they lived in larger communities but were highly dependent on the seasons.
When they did have food to eat, it was because it was easy to grow but not especially nutritious. (A woman I once knew said, “When I was growing up on a farm, we ate a lot of corn and ‘taters because they are good for you.” In other words, you ate what you had and made the best of the situation.)
Farmers depended on the seasons: food was available some seasons, but not others. Natural disasters wrecked crops. Droughts caused stalks to wilt in the field; flooding caused roots to rot.
Farming the same land for many years caused the soil to be depleted of needed nutrients. During much of the year food was in short supply and of poor quality, and people did the best they could to survive. Starvation loomed as a possibility.
A good harvest was a time for celebration. An abundance of food was suddenly available. Of course, this caused its own problems because food would eventually rot. In cold months, food could be left outside as a form of primitive refrigeration, but that could attract wolves, bears, and wild dogs.
The best solution to a good harvest was to save what food you could and eat the rest before it spoiled. In other words, you might starve much of the year, but for a few weeks at harvest time you could invite the neighbors, have a party and gorge yourself with food.
Harvest celebrations and festivals go back to time immemorial in almost every culture where seasons were important for agriculture. A harvest god was honored with parades and feasts where wine or beer flowed abundantly.
(Look up Bacchanalia in an encyclopedia.) This practice goes back to the beginnings of civilization with the ancient Sumerians having a god of vegetation and a goddess of beer.
The early church retained many of these popular celebrations but changed the deities from pagan gods to Christian saints.
This arrangement worked well until the Protestant Revolution. John Calvin, the leader of the Calvinists (known as Puritans in England), was strongly opposed to religious celebrations, going so far as trying to ban religious services at Christmas and Easter.
Calvin did, however, approve of thanksgivings as a form of worship. When the English Calvinists (the Puritans) took over the British government, they formally banned most religious celebrations but did allow two special types of worship in addition to Sundays: Days of Thanksgiving to thank God for his generosity and Days of Fasting, Humiliation, and Prayer to pray for forgiveness.
We should be thankful that when settlers landed in Virginia and Massachusetts they retained the old tradition of giving thanks to God at harvest time.
The celebration of Thanksgiving has changed over the years, largely becoming a time for far-flung families to gather.
However, we still go through the ceremony of thanking God while we eat turkey and wait for the football games on TV.
Have a Happy Thanksgiving!
James Shockley writes a monthly history column. He lives in Blacksburg.