You probably think you know about the origins of Thanksgiving, the most American of holidays. In Kindergarten, I bet you brought home paper cutouts of the Pilgrims and Native Americans (maybe even your teacher taught you they were the Wampanoag people). And you probably remember the story of the feast the Indians shared with the settlers of Plymouth in the fall of 1621, in celebration of a great harvest. But did you know how Thanksgiving became a national American holiday?
The genesis of the holiday actually stretches back to George Washington, who in 1789—the first year our young republic—issued a proclamation designating November 26 of that year as a “day of public thanksgiving and prayer.” This however did not establish the day as a national holiday. Later presidents, John Adams and James Madison, made similar declarations, but the tradition did not stick.
It didn’t become a national holiday until Abraham Lincoln, almost 75 years later, made it official on October 3, 1863 “to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise.” President Lincoln took this action near the end of the bloodiest year of our civil war. Only a few months earlier, he had to deliver his famous “Gettysburg Address” to a nation mourning over 50,000 causalities from that battle alone. Yet, in the midst of a year of bloodshed, battles and conflict across the country, Lincoln had enough hope to proclaim: “The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.” I think one more line from the lengthy official decree is particularly worth sharing today, “the Almighty hand heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it…to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.”
I share this small bit of history as a gentle reminder. If Lincoln, in the midst of our country’s civil war could find such hope and offer thanksgiving, then we should do no less. Without a doubt, 2020 has been a trying and challenging year, perhaps the most trying in recent memory. The pandemic of Covid-19 has altered every aspect of our lives, our health and our living, and at times we have difficulty seeing beyond it. All in all, 2020 is a year we cannot wait to get in the rear view mirror.
But I’d like to offer this thought—it’s not 1865! If, in that horrid year of death and destruction, Lincoln could count his blessings and be thankful, then so can we.
Before you carve the turkey, please take a moment to remember the many blessings you have to be thankful for. Then, before you have that piece of pumpkin pie, why not follow Lincoln’s example and ask the Almighty to heal our nation, both the physical bodies and the body politic.