Many of us look forward to celebrating Thanksgiving and the time when we will be gathered around a table with our families and our friends celebrating. When questioned about the meaning behind our Thanksgiving Celebrations, especially when teaching children about our customs we often turn to the very beginning of our nation’s history. We tell of the Pilgrims that arrived in America and the ultimate meal of thanksgiving that they shared with the Native Americans –the Indians. A quick Google search will tell you the story:
In September 1620 a small ship called the Mayflower left Plymouth England carrying an assortment of religious separatists seeking a new home where they could freely practice their faith along with others seeking prosperity and land ownership in the new world. Ultimately they arrived at Massachusetts Bay. Following a brutal winter, the settlers finally move ashore and began establishing relationships with the natives of the land. Squanto, a member of one of the local tribes, taught the Pilgrims how to survive –how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish and perhaps most importantly how to establish an alliance with the Wampanoag – a local tribe.
And in November of 1621, after a successful corn harvest, a celebratory feast was organized. The Pilgrims celebrated their success alongside their neighbors, the Native Americans, and thus the first Thanksgiving. This is an important part of our nation’s history and important insight into how we as a country evolved into having a custom of having a special holiday known as Thanksgiving in late November.
However, there is more to the story in order to understand and appreciate Thanksgiving. While a second Thanksgiving was held the following year in 1623 and it became common practice to hold many days of religious thanksgiving annually throughout our nation’s history, it really was not until Abraham Lincoln, during the heart of the Civil War, in 1863 that Thanksgiving became a national holiday, when Lincoln proclaimed that Thanksgiving should be marked on the final Thursday in November.
Lincoln’s proclamation teaches us something important. It was October of 1863, right after a significant Union Army victory, that Lincoln announced that the nation would celebrate an official Thanksgiving on November 26, 1863. The Civil War would last almost another two years. The nation was in war, complete strife, and at that moment in history Lincoln declares a national day of Thanksgiving. Lincoln concludes his proclamation with a call to the nation to beseech God to heal the fractured nation, to bring peace, harmony, and tranquility to the Union.
Lincoln understood the need in October of 1863 for collective healing, a day to tend to those who were impacted by the ravages of the war, widows, orphans and all of those injured in the battle, and the need to begin to sit down to “work to heal the wounds of the nation”.
Lincoln understood the importance of Thanksgiving in bringing people together and reminding them of the good in their lives, in a moment when life is chaotic and full of discord. Lincoln knew the power of people of different viewpoints, of a nation in strife, coming together and how that could propel the world forward and make a difference.
This history of Thanksgiving is very different than the story we tend to tell about the Pilgrims and the Native Americans. One narrative is about a group of people celebrating survival and the ability to live together and the other is about a nation in turmoil and the need to celebrate the good that exists despite the turmoil and the necessity of coming together at that very moment of strife to begin to work toward harmony and healing.
We need both of these stories to understand the importance of Thanksgiving. It is a moment to look at what we have and to have gratitude. It is also a moment to unify and come together. It is a moment to stop fighting and work together. We do not need a Civil War to remind us of the need to come together. It is just as meaningful in 2017 as it was in 1863.
Wishing you and your family a Thanksgiving filled with gratitude and peace.