MARLBORO MUSINGS: A Brief History of Thanksgiving

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By Gray Bostick

Tomorrow, just as millions of others around the country will do, we’ll gather to celebrate one of our favorite holidays, Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving, the single national holiday that has largely been saved from commercialism. At least thus far. It’s the one holiday holdout that is still primarily about family and friends coming together to share in a meal. No gifts or cards required. Just good conversation, good times, and good food. And love. And a grateful heart for the blessings we have received

But even though the holiday is celebrated across the country, and has been for over a century, very few people are aware of how Thanksgiving actually came to be a national holiday.Though we most often associate Thanksgiving with Pilgrims and New England Indians, Thanksgiving, at least as a semi-official national event, began 150 years ago, at the height of the horrific and divisive Civil War.

In explanation…

On October 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation announcing that the final Thursday of November would be set aside to express appreciation for the “blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.” Even amid the war’s many horrors, Americans had much to be thankful for, and Lincoln insisted that the rightful object of their gratitude was “the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”

Lincoln felt that divine mercies deserved public acknowledgment and thus invited all Americans to observe the last Thursday of November as a day of “thanksgiving and prayer to our beneficent Father, who dwelleth in the heavens,” thereby declaring our first National Day of Thanksgiving.

Of course, Lincoln didn’t dream up “Thanksgiving” from out of the blue as there were historical precedents, most significantly the “original” Thanksgiving feast between the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag Indians in 1621. Early Americans also celebrated a form of thanksgiving not as a fixed annual event, but as a series of unplanned holidays called in response to specific events, usually religious in nature, intended to invoke God’s help to cope with hardships, or to offer God thanks for positive developments.

This custom continued and by the 1840s and 1850s Thanksgiving was celebrated each November by a majority of states and many localities across the country, but the practice was inconsistently observed — a befuddling mess of local celebrations rather than a national holiday.

Sarah Josepha Hale, a New Hampshire-born writer and editor, was determined to change that. Hale had long recognized the nationalistic promise of Thanksgiving and, beginning in earnest in the 1840s, she campaigned doggedly to nationalize the holiday, publishing editorials in her journal, “Godey’s Lady’s Book,” and sending countless letters to political and cultural leaders.

Few American leaders have ever grasped as well as Lincoln the capacity of symbols and ideas to bring a nation together and he shared Hale’s vision of the promise of a national holiday like Thanksgiving. Thus, it is not surprising that the same president who spoke so eloquently of “the mystic chords of memory” — the same president who delivered the Gettysburg Address shortly before Thanksgiving Day, 1863 — was the one responsible for instituting the new national holiday.

However, November 26, 1863, was not the only wartime Thanksgiving held on Union soil as Lincoln designated a total of four Thanksgiving days, not all of them in November. For example, a Union Thanksgiving was held on August 6, 1863, to celebrate Gettysburg and Vicksburg.

Nor did observances of days of gratefulness stop at the Mason-Dixon Line. Confederate States’ President Jefferson Davis proclaimed two Thanksgivings himself — one after each Battle of Manassas.

Even after 1863, Thanksgiving was not yet exclusively tied to the last Thursday in November and remained somewhat in limbo as no one yet knew whether it would become a lasting national tradition. Lincoln received several letters and telegrams in April of 1865, during the last week of his life, urging him to name a day of “national thanksgiving” to commemorate the Union victory, but Lincoln took no action and had no idea that all future presidents would follow his lead. Nor could he have known that Thanksgiving would become fixed permanently as a single specific date in the nation’s calendar – the fourth Thursday in November, as designated by Franklin Roosevelt’s signature in 1941 – rather than as an irregular called response to specific events.

Thanksgiving exemplifies what the historians refer to as “the invention of tradition.” From its roots in harvest celebrations and New England’s religious observances, it rose to prominence amid the incredible suffering of the Civil War, when Americans needed more than ever to publicly reaffirm their collective relationship with God.

Like all invented traditions, Thanksgiving has continued to adapt to changing circumstances. Unplanned and semi-spontaneous celebrations turned into the fixed, nationwide event required by a modern nation-state, and the focus on the church has given way to a focus on the home. The focus on football has also become a vital element to the modern Thanksgiving celebration while the turkey consolidated its place at the center of the Thanksgiving table — thanks to the highly effective marketing efforts of the modern poultry industry.

Job well done, Butterball.

Yep, Thanksgiving has evolved gradually and unevenly, indeed. It is a tradition invented by many hands. And it’s clear to see that the big-money boys are moving in. Fast.

Thanksgiving, you see, is also followed by the biggest in-store shopping day of the year: Black Friday. In recent years, however, Black Friday has been boldly stomping right up into Thanksgiving’s back yard and picking a fight, with some stores now actually opening on Thanksgiving afternoon/evening.

And I’m sorry, but that’s just not right. Thanksgiving is the single American holiday that is still relatively pure, which has no overt religious connotation other than encouraging a personal sense of pious thankfulness and appreciation, and it should remain free of the reach of the mercantilian greed-heads. But believe me, it is squarely in their cross-hairs, a literal sitting duck with a big ol’ dollar sign on its side. And those guys don’t miss.

But that’s all big-picture stuff that’s out of our hands, and Thanksgiving is more about the little things, the important things that really matter, And those don’t come with price tags; they come with heart tugs.

We all have so much to be grateful for: our health, our families, being spared from recent storms, food on the table, dry, clean clothes on our back, a warm bed, a roof over our heads…just more than we can think of. If we took the time to think of it.

So, take that time to think of it. And appreciate it. All of it. Then close your eyes and thank the One from whom it came.

May God bless each of you have with a safe and happy Thanksgiving.

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