Thanksgiving is a great day.
Pretty much everyone in America is doing the same thing that day: we’re giving thanks to God, we’re feasting with family, we’re watching football and, once the tryptophan kicks in, we’re happily napping.
Thanksgiving reminds us we all have a similar past, present and future. We live and die together. Our fortunes are wrapped up in each other’s. It’s easy to forget these truths, since we live our lives alone or segregated in our families. But America is one nation, and common holidays that mark our founding ideas remind us we are one big family.
The origins of the American holiday stem, of course, from Pilgrim days when the country was being forged. Their population depleted by half after their first winter in the New World, the Pilgrims owed their survival to the local Wamponaug tribe, with whom they celebrated the first Thanksgiving. Such inclusivity. Such togetherness.
Most of us think of the Pilgrims and Indians when we mark Thanksgiving. But the day offers more history than that.
Thanksgiving retreated to the background until 1789, when newly elected President George Washington set aside a day to thank God after the Revolution. Washington’s proclamation in part:
“Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be – That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks – for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation – for the single and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war – for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed – for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted – for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.”
Thanksgiving hit the big time in 1863 when Abraham Lincoln declared a national day of thanks. What was going on in 1863? The Civil War. Another time of trial and tribulation for our country.
Thanksgiving had been regularly celebrated in New England before 1863, and Lincoln himself had proclaimed other days of thanksgiving. But a magazine editor named Sarah Josepha Hale convinced Lincoln to finally establish a nationwide public holiday.
Lincoln saw the wisdom in declaring a national day of thanksgiving, thinking it would foster unity between the warring North and South. The day was met with approval on all sides and continues to this day as Americans’ second-favorite holiday. (Christmas is first.)
In today’s disunited America, we could use a dose of the original Thanksgiving spirit. Some hype today’s Democrat-Republican split as irreconcilable, but our division merely plays itself out on nightly news broadcasts, not on the fields of battle as it did in Lincoln’s day. It could be worse, in other words.
Even so, our nation could use some healing. The act of thanking God for life’s good things transforms us from bitter, complaining people into hopeful people who see value in everyone, no matter their politics.
While few modern political leaders are able to grasp the idea of humility before God and how that can transform an individual and nation, we can still look to Lincoln, who wrote the following in his 1863 Thanksgiving proclamation on how to be truly thankful:
“The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.
“To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God …
“In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved …
“I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.