Today is the only uniquely American religious holiday. In these latter days it is fashionable in some circles to gloss over the religious nature of the holiday in favor of a vague 'thankfullness', but that begs the question of who one is thanking.
Though this holiday falls almost two weeks into the Nativity Fast for Orthodox Christians, it is a general rule that the celebration of this holiday trumps this, especially for those of us who have non-Orthodox relatives. It has also become associated with an Akathist said to have been found in the effects of Hieromartyr Grigori Petroff (+1942) and variously attributed to him or to Metropolitan Tryphon of Turkestan.
The tempest of life does not frighten one in whose heart shines the light of Thy divine Fire.
Around me are whirling storms and roaring winds;
terror and darkness surround me;
but in my soul is peace and light.
Christ is here.
And my heart sings:
Across the cold chain of ages I feel the warmth of Thy Holy Spirit and the surging of Divine Life. Thou art near, Time is nonexistent.
I see Thy Cross – it is for my sake.
My spirit is humbled into dust before Thy love,
limitless and incomprehensible.
Wherefore, beneath Thy Cross I will unto ages glorify Thee,
my Savior, with song:
This sort of sums up how we, Christians, are supposed to approach life. It is said that we are created to be Eucharistic and Doxological beings. In other words (English ones) we are created to give thanksgiving and glory to God. Thanksgiving is supposed to be our purpose every day, not merely on the one day that is set aside for the function. Is it any accident that the Sacrament which brings us most closely into communion with God and each other is called simply The Thanksgiving (The Eucharist if you prefer the Greek)? This is supposed to be who we are.
Today is also the Commemoration of St. Alexander Nevsky, the Rightly Believing Prince of Novgorod.
Alexander was born the fourth son of Prince Yaroslav Vsevolodovich of Vladimir, but was asked by Novgorod's council to serve as their Kniaz, or Prince. Novgorod was unique among medieval states in that 1136 they had banished their prince and proclaimed a republic. Novgorod was ruled by a council of merchants and nobles and the function of the prince was largely restricted to that of war leader, a duty which Alexander's father had also performed.
Alexander's role as a leader began when Novgorod was faced with an invasion by the Swedes, who used as their justification a Papal bull calling for an attack on the Finns who were alleged to have left Catholicism under the influence of their Russian neighbors. On 15 July 1240, warned of the approach of the Swedes by a Finnish chieftan who had converted to Christianity, the 19 year old prince led Novgorod's army in a sudden attack on the Swedes on the banks of the Neva river which threw their army into confusion, ended the attack, and resulted in the appelation 'Nevsky' being attached to the Prince in honor of his victory. Reviewing his troops before he set off, he used an allusion to the Psalms which has remained famous: "God is not on the side of force, but of the just case, the pravda."
However, his relations with the boyars of Novgorod worsened, and he was exiled from the city. He was summoned again a year later as Novgorod faced simultaneous invasions of both Tartars (Mongols) from the East and the Teutonic Order's German and Livonian knights from the West.
Realizing that the Tartars demanded political submission and tribute, but would not interfere in Novgorod's internal affairs, private lives, or religious faith, Alexander made the humiliating and difficult decision to pay tribute and acknowledge the Mongols as overlords.
The Germans, on the other hand, were intent on imposing German and Livonian knights in direct control of fiefs carved out of Russian territory and on forcibly converting the population to Catholicism. They occupied the three towns of Pskov, Koporye, and Iborsk. Somehow the story got started (true? Who knows) that in Pskov, at least, the Estonian auxilliaries of the Order burnt local children alive in bonfires. Alexander ordered a mobilization of the city militia, and pushed out, recapturing Pskov and Koporye. In retaliation for the burning, he hung every one of the foot soldiers he captured, but ransomed the knights for cash to pay his bodyguards/retainers (druzhina) which formed the core of the mobile force under his command.
After the Order defeated a small reconaissance force of Russians, the Prince decided to engage the main body of the Order's knights--between 2,000 and 2500 men--with his approximately 1,000 druzhina and 4,000 militia. The battle was fought on the frozen lake of Peipus. The chronicles are vague on tactical details, but both Order and Russian sources agree that the Russians stood on the defensive, stopped the charge of the Order knights, and then encircled them. When the Knights cut their way free, they attempted to regroup on the opposite side of the lake and the thin ice broke under the weight of their horses, and the Russians pursed them for several miles (7 versts).
After spending three years fighting the Lithuanians and removing the threat of Lithuanian raids for the first time in the history of Novgorod, the remainder of St. Alexander's life was taken up in managing the effects of the Mongols of the Golden Horde. When summoned before the Mongol Khan after the death of his father (recognized as the Great Prince over all the Russians by the Mongols) he consulted with the leadership of the Orthodox Church. Metropolitan Cyril gave his approval to the decision to go to the Mongols as a vassal, on the condition that he worshipped no idols and did not deny his faith in Christ. Skillful diplomacy and the willingness to pay tribute so long as the Mongols did not intrude themselves on the internal affairs of the Russians were his only weapons, as the Mongol forces could have not merely defeated the Russian armies and militias, but would have also devastated Russia and destroyed them as a people. On at least four occasions the Great Prince made long and difficult journeys to intervene with the Mongols on behalf of his people, once going as far as Karankorum and spending nearly three years on the road. He calmed situations where civil unrest almost exploded into armed resistance against the Mongols--a circumstance which would have resulted in a catastrophic response. As a result, Russia survived to throw off the Tartar yoke some time later.
St. Alexander was well noted during his lifetime for his piety. In his last days he repaired to a monastary and took vows as a simple monk, and it was as such that he reposed and was buried. Less than 20 years later he was added to the calendar and formally commemorated by the Church in Russia.
I have a great fondness for the military saints, and it would be a shame to let the Great Prince's commemoration get completely swamped by the American holiday. :)