Thanksgiving offers us the chance to remember that for which we truly are blessed.
That may seem difficult given the partisanship that divides our country, our state, our community and sometimes even our families. For those facing just such a quandary today, rest easy knowing that the nearly four-century history of American Thanksgiving celebrations is riddled with people of different ideologies and backgrounds coming together to look past their differences and instead give thanks for that which binds them.
The first Thanksgiving is most often recognized as a three-day festival near Plymouth, Mass., in 1621. It featured English colonists who had come over on the Mayflower celebrating their first harvest with Native Americans from the Wampanoag tribe who had spent the previous months teaching the settlers how to fish, hunt and plant and harvest corn. The festival was repeated in 1623 and thereafter such harvest celebrations soon became a tradition among English settlements.
During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress designated days of Thanksgiving, and in 1789 George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation, calling on Americans to celebrate the end of the Revolutionary War and the ratification of the Constitution.
In the 1800s, many states, mostly in the North, established Thanksgiving holidays. But the states were not unified in their efforts. Most held the celebration on different days.
Starting in the 1820s and continuing for more than three decades, Sarah Josepha Hale — an author best known for writing the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb” — championed the creation of a national Thanksgiving holiday.
Hale’s advocacy for the Thanksgiving holiday was ignored until President Abraham Lincoln finally granted Hale’s wish. In 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln signed a proclamation establishing Thanksgiving as a national holiday to be held on the last Thursday of November.
“The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies,” Lincoln wrote in his proclamation. “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.”
Throughout history, leaders like Lincoln have used Thanksgiving celebrations as a chance to set aside differences, heal wounds and share in that which binds us. As we gather around dinner tables today, may we keep that history close, celebrate our blessings and give thanks for that which brings us together.