When elementary school teachers across our nation tell their students the origins of Thanksgiving, there are accounts of pilgrims and Indians, complete with black-buckled hats and feathered headdresses, talk of starving people and the wisdom of men like Squanto who taught the Mayflower pilgrims how to survive amid a challenging new world. And while none of these accounts are wrong, the breaking of bread between the new Europeans and the Wampanoag tribesmen were not the beginning of Thanksgiving as we celebrate it today.
In 1789, George Washington issued a proclamation to set aside November 26th of that year as a national day of thanksgiving “to recognize the role of providence in creating the new United States and the new federal Constitution”. As time went on, the legislature would appoint various days for prayer, thanksgiving, and fasting (imagine that!), but it wasn’t until Abraham Lincoln came into office that our traditional Thanksgiving was established.
During the dark days of the Civil War, Lincoln issued “a national day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficial Father”. Lincoln’s initial proclamation was so well received, the following year he issued the holiday once again. He did not live to see it celebrated a third time, but the nation carried on the new memorial in his absence.
But when did the days of prayer, praise and fasting turn to a celebration of gluttony and football watching? It all began with Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book. Hale urged Lincoln to issue the original proclamation. Some believed her motive for doing so stemmed from her fiery patriotism. Others believed it was because she saw the advantageous benefits Godey’s would reap from sales when printing fashion and recipes for such a nation holiday (which they did ad nauseum). Either way, Lincoln listened and we are still enjoying both the benefits, and expanded waistlines, of the proclamation today.
What I find interesting is that when the original Mayflower pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribesmen came together, they were battling hardship and disease. When the national proclamation was issued by Lincoln, our nation was being ravaged by the greatest political, social and emotional turmoil we’ve ever endured. And now we have governors calling for Thanksgiving celebrations to be cancelled by families. For the time set aside to cherish our loved ones, a gift made all too precious with the passing of time and in fragility of the coronavirus, to be cast aside in the name of fear and control.
I would contend that there is no better time for a national day of Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficial Father. We need to remember to Whom we belong. Where our strength comes from. Where our Hope lies. Perhaps we ought to be less focused on turkey and pumpkin pie and more focused on prayer.
Somehow, I think that’s what Lincoln had in mind.