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The Garden Gate: Colonists’ spirits rest with us in this season of thanks

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By Ellen Probert Williamson
As we come to the end of November, we are face to face with some important celebrations: Thanksgiving, the day of St. Andrew, the national emblem of Scotland, and the beginning of Advent in the Christian faith that leads up to Christmas.

It is common knowledge that Thanksgiving began in New England as the Pilgrims’ celebration of gratitude for being alive and prospering after their first year of deprivation in the New World.

But that was actually the second American Thanksgiving. The first settlers at Berkeley Hundred, Va., arrived a year before the Pilgrims, on Dec. 4, 1619.

Their charter from the British Crown directed that “the day the ship arrives at the place assigned for the plantation in the land of Virginia shall yearly and perpetually be kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

The 34 colonists, led by Capt. Richard Berkeley, knelt in prayer and proclaimed their thanksgiving after leaving the ship, as stated in records in the archives of the New York Public Library.

The traditional Plymouth Thanksgiving is the popular one, however. It was a party lasting several days in the autumn of 1621, when the colonists and their Indian friends celebrated and gave thanks to God for their survival and prosperity.

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation creating the national holiday we now all observe, the last Thursday in November, the day we all treasure.

Wild turkeys were abundant in the New England woods in 1621, but they were not on the menu at the Plymouth Thanksgiving feast.

Wild ducks, geese, venison, shellfish, all sorts of sallet greens, cornbread, plums, dried berries and wine made from wild grapes gathered in the woods comprised the lavish bill of fare. This, too, was the first party scene appearance of popcorn, a contribution provided by the Indian guests.

Although William Bradford, second governor of the Plymouth Colony, noted the settlers had planted turnips, parsnips and cabbage, they were not included in the feast. And no one knew what to do with the wild cranberries that grew so lavishly in New England marshes.

But squashes and pompions, or pumpkins, were baked in ashes for that Thanksgiving celebration.

Herbs, including sage, were important in the kitchens of early America. They were used in every aspect of food preparation and supplied dyes, preservatives, potpourris, cosmetics and a large proportion of the “materia medico” of the time.

For many of us, Thanksgiving turkey stuffing would not be complete without the lovely, silvery, aromatic sage, one of the sacred herbs used in Native American ceremonies. Its scent and taste combine perfectly with other ingredients for this ideal accompaniment to turkey and all the fixings. Sage helps digest fats; perhaps that is why it is so often used with meats. Ancient Romans used to dip sage leaves in batter and deep fry them and serve the little fritters at the end of a meal to aid digestion.

Sage tea is said to be good as a gargle for sore throats, a rinse for the hair, a healing lotion and a flavoring. An old French couplet says, “Sage helps the nerves and by its might, palsy is cured, and fever put to flight.”

Don’t forget that herbs, including the Indians’ sacred sage, were thought to have magical powers and were often used in “spells” in a less-enlightened time.

Sage is mentioned in the Book of Exodus and was among the plants Solomon had in his garden. Seventeenth-century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper’s “Compleat Herball” book had a whole page devoted to the benefits, medicinal and culinary of sage.

The beautiful seven-branched Menorah, a traditional Jewish symbolic candlestick used in many religious ceremonies, had its origin in the depiction of the branched plant, salvis judiaca, or sage plant, which grows on the hills of Palestine.

St. Andrew Day is Nov. 30. It is observed as the date of the first Sunday of Advent, the symbol of the beginning and end of the church year. In silver and blue, the St. Andrew’s cross is the national emblem of Scotland.

In the Christian faith, the Advent wreath is an important Christmastime symbol, signifying this penitential period of “the coming.”

We celebrate this four-week period preceding Christmas in many churches and homes. It is a time to spiritually prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ. Churches all over the world faithfully use this time for study, prayer, sometimes fasting and penance, leading up to the joyful celebration of Christmas.

One type of Advent wreath is a circle. It represents the Trinity and holds five candles. Three are blue or purple, one is rose pink and one in the center is white. The first blue one is lit on the first Sunday of Advent. It and the second one will be lit on the Sunday afterward. This is to remind us to make room for Christ in our hearts. On the third Sunday of Advent all the blue candles will be lit, reminding us of the Shepherds who said, “Come, let us go and see these things which the Lord has described to us.”

On the fourth Sunday in Advent the rose-colored candle will be lighted with the blue ones to remind us of the angels’ proclamation of God’s great love for all the world. The white candle in the center will be lit on Christmas Eve to join all the others. This one, the Christ candle, reminds us that Jesus is indeed, the “light of the world.”

The Advent wreath as we use it today was first used in Germany by the Lutherans in the 16th century.

Susan Restino devoted a section of her book about her country kitchen and her farm life to Thanksgiving.

“We are grateful to God, to the earth, the summer sun, and just to be alive, with friends, and done with harvest for another year,” she wrote.

The spirit of early colonists will somehow be with us too, as we appreciate the blessings of family gatherings and a bountiful harvest.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.