Thanksgiving Day, as we know it now, did not originate with the Pilgrims, though we have through the years romanticized the connection. There is nothing wrong with romanticizing and connecting the Day with Native Americans welcoming and helping the first refugees to these shores, who, in turn, invited the Native Americans to give thanks with them for their survival in a new land.
While there were occasional thanksgiving celebrations dating back to the early days in Virginia and Massachusetts, there was no established tradition, nor were these by any means national celebrations. An obscure woman, Sara Josepha Hale, is credited for our present observance. In 1863 she wrote President Abraham Lincoln requesting a meeting to propose that the scattered celebrations of Thanksgiving be unified into “A National and fixed Union Festival.” On October 3, 1863, Lincoln issued the first National Thanksgiving Proclamation, and presidents ever since have continued to do so.
It is interesting that Lincoln did not suggest that Thanksgiving be a “Church” event, but that it should be celebrated by families in their homes. It was a time, he said, to give thanks for the many blessings that we have enjoyed in our nation, but it was also declared a time for “humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience.” Giving thanks to “the Most High God” for blessings and confessing our faults and failures went hand in hand according to Lincoln.
That first Thanksgiving Proclamation also called upon the American people to “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.”
We are no longer engaged in a civil war, but we certainly know “civil strife” and we, as a nation, suffer from many wounds still. There are people all across the land who are “widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers” because of our “national perverseness and disobedience.” So it is, that we, as a people, give thanks—but recognizing our foibles—we must also confess and implore forgiveness, as a people, on Thanksgiving Day. We often forget that the two go hand in hand. Lincoln, in the first Thanksgiving Proclamation, would remind us that this is reality.
|Big Bend National Park, Texas|