A remarkable holiday is now before us, and it is one that speaks to our sense of American exceptionalism in a way few holidays do. The event we have mythologized and romanticized occurred in 1621 and lasted for three days as a group of English Dissenters and Wampanoag Indians came together for a great feast. The idea of a thanksgiving was not new to them. Thanksgivings were days of prayer thanking God for blessings before they were days of feasting. Our Thanksgiving only took on its political and legal form in 1863 when Abraham Lincoln decreed it in the midst of the Civil War. He was responding to a plea from Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, who had petitioned a long string of presidents to create a single, national day of thanks. President Lincoln, unlike his predecessors, did so in quick order and his secretary of state, William H. Seward, wrote the proclamation on Lincoln’s behalf. Seward’s proclamation was as follows:
“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 unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. 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. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, 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, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”
I would encourage all of us to embrace Thanksgiving and to make it real within our homes this year. It can be a day on which we unashamedly realize our most Rockwellian sentiments, and allow our nostalgia to triumph. It can be a day on which political and familial squabbles subside long enough for us to breathe freely of the crisp autumn air, to take in the scents of a home-cooked meal, to converse with neighbors and old friends and delight in our children, our health, and our good fortune.
The holiday will be celebrated in different ways of course: some will watch the parade or the game on television, or worship, or volunteer; but, it is likely that each of us has something to be thankful for and someone to thank for it. Take the time to thank them. Set aside your pride and fears of awkwardness. Demonstrate to others that you acknowledge you would be less if it were not for them. Make room in your heart, if not your home, for those who have less, and give them cause to give thanks as well.
These moments are so scarce that it gives us all the more reason to mark them well and make them the bearers of cherished memories. The type of day you have is up to you. Eat too much, drag out the board games and the cards; throw the football in the yard until your fingers are numb with cold, and the let the young ones play in the piles of leaves. Build a fire, grab an old novel, put up your feet, and rejoice in the material and immaterial abundance by which you are surrounded.
As you pinch yourself awake to claim that final piece of pie, look to the future and know that it is also a day of hope. It is a hope, easily mocked, but heartfelt nonetheless, that there will be yet more to be thankful for.
Benjamin Franklin was too cynical when he wrote that, “He who lives on hope, dies fasting.” Hopes may be shattered without shattering hope. Thanksgiving is not a day for despair or tragic thoughts because long may we look forward to the distinct possibility that we will know again all that has ever given men cause to be thankful.
Enjoy your turkey, your family, and wine in good cheer and good company. Realize the myth and revel in gratitude, charity, and hope.