Commentary: Thinking Thanksgiving (Nov. 23, 2022)

The 400th anniversary of what is generally considered the birth of our Thanksgiving holiday actually took place last year.

But a lot of us were still fighting our way out of the COVID pandemic then and, well, we kind of missed that moment.

Fact is, in 1621, the Plymouth colonists and their Wampanoag neighbors (who had helped them survive the previous winter) shared an autumn feast to celebrate the bountiful harvest they had enjoyed, which is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies.

Without delving too deep into historical minutiae, we’ll simply note that Thanksgiving didn’t get legs as a national holiday right away.

But there were plenty of Thanksgiving celebrations around the colonies. In fact, the Pilgrims’ wasn’t even the first.

Two years before the Plymouth celebration, 38 colonists in what is now Virginia held an observance per instructions in their charter from the London Company: “that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for plantation in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

Throughout New England, particularly, during the succeeding two centuries, a variety of days of Thanksgiving were observed.

President George Washington proclaimed the first nationwide thanksgiving celebration in America, marking Nov. 26, 1789, “as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God,” and calling on Americans to “unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions.”

It wasn’t until 1863, though, in the middle of the Civil War, that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a permanent national Thanksgiving Day to be held each November.

Turns out, Honest Abe didn’t just wake up one morning with a sudden urge to do the right thing.

Sarah Josepha Hale, author of the popular children’s song “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and editor of Godey’s Lady Book, one of the most popular women’s magazines of the day, is credited with lobbying the president to make it an official national holiday.

Hale had grown up in New Hampshire, where she had regularly celebrated an annual thanksgiving holiday and for 40 years she wrote editorials and articles about the holiday and lobbied state and federal officials to pass legislation creating a fixed, national day of thanks on the last Thursday of November.

According to History.com, Hale believed that such a unifying measure could help ease growing tensions and divisions between the northern and southern parts of the country.

Apparently, President Lincoln also was hopeful that it would do so, calling on the American people, “with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience … fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation … ”

There were other steps in the process that we won’t go into here, but is there not a common thread here?

We modern Americans are working our way out of a period of great difficulty, just like all of the above. Frankly, though, many of us pay more attention to our dog than God.

Are we too preoccupied with taking selfies to recognize and reflect on the great benefits we enjoy, marred on occasion by high gas prices or a shortage of toilet paper?

Thanksgiving may be the healthiest holiday we Americans celebrate, if we actually celebrate it.

We’re not talking about Turkey Day here. No Pre-Black Friday (if the latter even exists any more).

We’re talking about truly giving thanks for the food we eat, the air we breathe, the clothes that we can easily procure at a moment’s notice (we don’t have to labor to make them), the peace and prosperity we enjoy.

While this might sound a little preachy, it’s actually the truth: Being thankful is good for you.

Harvard University researchers have reported that “gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.”

It’s interesting that our forefathers saw thanksgiving as a way to heal wounds. Given the situation we find ourselves in today in America where the anger, division and strife that have arisen in our culture are bemoaned by many, Americans might be well-advised to think on that.

Maybe thanksgiving is healthy because we are reminded that we are not self-sufficient. After all, the word itself implies that there’s someone we’re thanking.

As one commentator recently noted, all those groceries loading our tables don’t really come from a supermarket.

Something to think about.

Clearly, our forefathers, who’d suffered a lot more than most of, did.

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