Thanksgiving, More So Amid Troubled Time
As this Thanksgiving dawns, combat troops are deployed from Afghanistan to our own southern border. Millions of Americans are struggling to reclaim a sense of normalcy after deadly hurricanes and wildfires. Deep and intertwined political, cultural and social divisions have poisoned relationships and discourse. Even amid a strong economy, an air of uneasiness is upon the land.
But the Thanksgiving observance itself has its roots in hardship and uncertainty — the one at Plymouth Plantation celebrated in popular culture, but even more so the first official one as declared by President Abraham Lincoln more than 240 years later, amid the Civil War.
The bloodshed was very far from over on Oct. 3, 1863, when Lincoln called for a day of “Thanksgiving and Praise” on the last Thursday of November. (At the behest of retailers, President Franklin Roosevelt moved it in 1939 to the fourth Thursday of November to create a longer Christmas shopping season.)
Indeed, another 18 months of carnage and heartbreak lay ahead. But Lincoln had reason for optimism and thanks. Over Independence Day weekend in 1863, Union troops had prevailed at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, setting the Union’s strategic course, hemming in the Confederacy and making an ultimate Union victory inevitable. As he put it, “that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.”
Thanks amid cataclysm
In his proclamation, Lincoln was able to see beyond the cataclysm of the war. The United States otherwise was at peace with other nations, and “the year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies,” he wrote. “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.”
Lincoln long had insisted that his objective in the war was to restore the Union, and he used the Thanksgiving proclamation as a call to observe the ideals of America’s founding. He cited the nation’s “gifts” and invoked God, for example, but favored no particular religion: “It has seemed to me fit and proper that (the nation’s gifts) should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People,” he wrote. “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.”
An example for the nation
As in so many other areas, Lincoln set an example for the nation. Since that first proclaimed Thanksgiving, when he rose above and saw beyond the war, Americans have given thanks amid other wars, economic depression, natural and man-made disasters and myriad other forms of national and personal adversity.
The very idea of the holiday is unbound by politics, geography, religion or any of the other factors that create division. Today is a day to take a cue from Lincoln, to rise above division, to recognize and offer thanks for the nation’s uncountable blessings, to embrace friends and family and to marvel at what, in the big picture, is the extraordinary good fortune of living in the United States in the 21st century.