Shoppers were wheeling carts filled with groceries out of the Market Basket in Gloucester last weekend — and giving them away. The city’s police were on volunteer duty, “stuffing” a cruiser with cans of soup, peanut butter, healthy snacks, juice boxes and other donated non-perishables.

“People really responded,” Julie LaFontaine, executive director of The Open Door food pantry, told reporter Ray Lamont. They collected 9,120 pounds of food at that grocery store alone and 24,320 pounds in all — that’s 12 tons of food — at five locations throughout the region.

They didn’t get nearly that haul over at the Cashman School in Amebsury. But students there, led by the fourth-grade student council, managed to fill a truck with pasta, rice, cereal, granola and other items collected during a food drive that started just after Halloween. Their food surely will fill dozens of bellies.

At the Boys & Girls Club of Lawrence, the food on Tuesday evening was already out of the containers and cooked. Turkey, potatoes, corn, chocolate chip cookies — it was all served up for 500 or so children having a meal courtesy of the Lawrence Exchange Club. The kids joked with their friends, argued over which part of dinner was best, and mused on what life must have been like some 400 years ago when the Pilgrims ate with the Wampanoag.

“They had to hunt turkeys — and deer!” one boy told reporter Bill Kirk.

So goes this holiday that for all of the trappings and tradition has evolved into a time of charity and sharing, and strengthening bonds of community along the way.

To be sure, “sharing” may have been baked into the origins of this holiday, but it wasn’t at the top of the menu. The true purpose was to offer thanks to the Creator, to reflect upon and celebrate the blessings in our lives.

That was a tradition of the Wampanoag and other native peoples in North America, with meals and celebrations dating to ancient times, long before settlers from England arrived and long before the three-day feast in the fall of 1621.

But gratitude also resonated with Protestant tradition and was clearly on the mind of Massachusetts Gov. John Hancock when he effused more than 160 years after that first “thanksgiving”: “Our hearts overflow with gratitude and our lips set forth the praises of our great Creator, that we also offer up fervent supplications, that it may please him to pardon all our offenses ….”

It was much the same in other proclamations of days of thanksgiving, including one issued by President Abraham Lincoln on Oct. 3, 1863, calling for a national day of gratitude in the midst of war. Lincoln's was the gesture most directly connected to today’s celebration. He wrote for a country torn apart that “while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him … they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged ….”

In the vast, complicated history of this holiday — amid all of the turkey, yams, cranberries and green bean casserole served across tables of time — Thanksgiving has since then become as much about feeding others as expressing thankfulness for our own bounty.

It's doubtless a reflection of the holiday’s religious underpinnings that many of us find ourselves wanting to do something for someone else on this day. Maybe it reflects the community created when families and friends come together to share a meal; the natural inclination, for most, is to open the door to others.

Whatever inspires it, charity and volunteerism are now such significant staples of Thanksgiving that some non-profits gently ask well-meaning individuals to not bunch up their generosity and instead spread it out over the course of the year.

It’s a good suggestion worth holding onto long after today’s dinner is over, and after the leftovers have finally been cleared out of the refrigerator. May we remember it come January and July, offering to nourish those in need of food or companionship, in the same spirit of kindness, generosity and community as we express today.

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