Giving Thanks


For the past several History Rhymes, we have looked at the current political situation in the United States and tried to use past events to help gain some perspective on the nuttiness of our times. This is the most bizarre and lengthy presidential campaign we have experienced for some time (perhaps since the early nineteenth century). We have see a great interest in conservative and progressive voters for candidates that would have been seen as unelectable in other elections (e.g. Donald Trump and Ben Carson on the right, and Bernie Sanders on the left). We have seen Trump rise in the polls every time he says something that normally would have proven fatal to his campaign. The same is true of Carson (e.g. saying that he believes that the pyramids were created by Joseph to store grain). Well, I do not know about any of the rest of you, but I need a break. I need a few days to remember the things that are good in the world and for which I am thankful. Fortunately, this personal need coincides with a beloved American holiday all about appreciation for what we have – Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is not strictly an American holiday. Seven other nations celebrate a holiday that centers on giving thanks. Germans celebrate the harvest-oriented Erntedanktfest on the first Sunday of October. The Japanese recognize “Labor Thanksgiving Day” on November 23rd when workers are celebrated. The Canadian Thanksgiving Day has similar origins to the American version, but is celebrated on the second Monday of October (which makes a lot more sense to this Midwesterner since travel at the end of November can be a bit dodgy at times). The Caribbean island nation of Granada holds a celebration of thanks on October 25th to remember the 1983 invasion by the United States to overthrow the communist government. The West African nation of Liberia was founded in the nineteenth century by freed American slaves and their form of Thanksgiving has its origins in the American form. The people of Leiden in the Netherlands celebrate those who once lived there, but moved to America as some of the earliest European settlers to what became the United States. Finally, the Australian island territory Norfolk Island holds a celebration on the last Wednesday of November. Their celebration owes its origins to contact with last nineteenth century American whaling ships.

In the United States, there are a variety of traditions (some more recent than others) that are associated with the Thanksgiving holiday of which there are a variety of options. For some people, there is a turkey dinner, but for others it is ham. For some people it is pumpkin pie, but for others it is sweet potato pie (both are delicious!). After the meal, some people have the tradition of watching a football game (especially for Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers, and Detroit Lions fans). For those who still receive a daily paper, they can look though the Thanksgiving edition with its enormous advertising circulars. Getting ready for Black Friday (which is now really “Black Thursday Night” for a lot of retailors) takes some planning if you want to get those great deals! For people like me, the time after the huge meal is a good chance to take a good turkey-inducing nap.

Since this blog is all about history, I will conclude with a brief summary of how Thanksgiving became an official holiday in the United States. As many of you may know, we have President Abraham Lincoln to thank for the official holiday. However, he was not the first president to officially give thanks. In 1789, President George Washington has issued the first Thanksgiving Proclamation and this tradition was followed by his successor John Adams. However, with the ascension of Adams’ great rival Thomas Jefferson, the tradition (along with some other traditions Washington initiated such as a presidential address to congress) ceased. Jefferson felt that the republic should not have official holidays that gave thanks to a deity. So, with the exception of two proclamations by James Madison in 1814-15, there was no national holiday for decades. Instead, individual states had their own holidays over a variety of days in the autumn. It was not until October 1863 that Lincoln declared that fourth Thursday in November would be a national “day of thanksgiving and praise.” Considering the tumult and tragedy that the Union was undergoing in 1863 (battles such as Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and Chickamauga), it is not surprising that a holiday was considered appropriate and welcome.

This blog is about using the events and words of the past to give some perspective to the present in the hope that it will help us in the future. Right now, we are in a world that seems more and more dangerous and frightening. There is strife of all kinds – nationalist, sectarian, racial, economic… It can sometimes be hard to be optimistic or hopeful. Yet, if a man of great sorrows and melancholy such as Abraham Lincoln could find the desire to give thanks, then we should too. So, I will leave you with the closing parts of the 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation (which was written initially by Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward). I only ask that you put aside the specifics of what is said in the proclamation and see how well it applies to all times of trouble and how there is hope for healing when the time is right.

I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, 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, tranquillity and Union.

Happy Thanksgiving

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