Thanksgiving: A celebration 400 years in the making

By Hunter Estes
November 24, 2019

A well-cooked turkey, the Macy’s Day parade, the Detroit Lions losing a football game, these are Thanksgiving traditions of which many of us hold fond memories. This classic American holiday beckons in the beginning of the winter holiday season, and yet it has a history that is often largely forgotten.

It was October 3, 1863, shortly after the devastating Battle of Gettysburg, that President Abraham Lincoln declared a national day of thanksgiving. Amidst much bloodshed and division, the holiday was meant to recall how blessed we are as a nation. His words ring true as a beautiful reflection on why we celebrate all these years later.

The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. 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 even soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.

Now, Lincoln did not start this American tradition, but he did revive it. In 1789, Congress asked President George Washington to declare a national day of thanksgiving. Washington would routinely request days of thanks following major victories in battle. It was one of his early acts as president to set the precedent of giving thanks to God as a nation, stating:

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor—and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.

Now, President Washington did not start this American tradition, but he did institutionalize it through the power of the American presidency. To find the roots of this day, one must look almost 400 years back on our history, when a group of pilgrims and Native Americans joined together to give a celebration of thanks to God for their safety and friendship. The event commonly cited as the “First Thanksgiving” was a praise of the successful harvest, made possible by instructional support from the local tribe.

There is something remarkably unique to this American holiday upon which we give thanks to God for the gifts we have. The day is a chance to not only offer thanks, but to recall that we have a responsibility to give unto others and serve our fellow man as well. America is set apart from the rest of the world by its dramatic generosity. A deep culture of philanthropy was laid at the heart of our foundation, and continues to this day.

America has consistently been found to be the most generous country in the world, donating an unprecedented amount of time and money. Americans gave $410 billion to charity in 2017, more than the GDP of the vast majority of countries. And, within that, Mississippi is one of the most charitable states in the union. We also top charts when it comes to the percentage of people that volunteer or donate.

In his preeminent book, Democracy in America, Alexandre De Tocqueville offers the insight that “Americans group together to hold fêtes, found seminaries, build inns, construct churches, distribute books, dispatch missionaries…They establish hospitals, prisons, schools by the same method.” Americans come together to solve problems and serve each other in order to build a better life. We gratefully look back on all that we have, and are ultimately made great by our ability to look ahead and question how we can best serve others.

For those to whom much is given, much is expected. America has taken this call to heart and is, for this reason, the most generous nation in the world. The holiday, perhaps more than any other, forces us to take pause and recall the gift of life that God has blessed us with, as well as the friends and family which surround us.

We live in a culture of materialism, focused on passing fads and the procurement of goods. Thanksgiving is more important now than ever as an institutional reminder of to whom we give thanks and how we are expected to display that gratitude through action.

The call to action of both thanks and service, which Lincoln offers stands the test of time, and is just as poignant as with this celebration of Thanksgiving as it was 150 years ago:

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, tranquility, and union.


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