For many reasons, it feels like a particularly good time for the country to take a day off from the turmoil and celebrate Thanksgiving. To sit around the table with family and friends and, instead of talking about the politics that is the background noise of our daily lives, enjoy the meal and each other’s company. Maybe turn off CNN or Fox and Friends or whatever your poison, turn off the phone and discuss the quality of this year’s stuffing, or whether Brussels sprouts are really pretty awful at the Thanksgiving feast or, gussied up with all kinds of other stuff, not that bad at all. Turnips versus mashed potatoes, rather than whether the Deep State is real or imagined.
This uniquely American holiday has its roots, sort of, in the mythic story of the Pilgrims’ landing in today’s Massachusetts and, in the fall of 1621, celebrating the bounty of a fall harvest with their Native American neighbors.
If that was a good day for the indigenous people of New England, who had lived on that land for thousands of years while the English pilgrims were undocumented immigrants, it was pretty much their last. Their story goes downhill from there.
Historians say George Washington declared a day of thanksgiving after America’s defeat of the British at Saratoga in 1777, and they say Thomas Jefferson was reluctant to formally declare a national day of thanksgiving because he believed in strict separation of religion from the business of the state.
So it fell to Abraham Lincoln to step in and permanently place an official day of Thanksgiving on the November calendar.
How this came about is a story of war and immense sacrifice for the national good — for what was right for America, not what was right for a portion of the southern population. In the fall of 1863, three months after the epic slaughter at Gettysburg that July — there were 51,112 casualties on both sides — Lincoln decided the country needed a day to honor its ideals, its belief in the Constitution and what it stood for. He meant it for everyone, North and South.
He said the official holiday that year would be Nov. 26. The fourth Thursday in November remained the holiday until 1939, when President Franklin Roosevelt moved it to the third Thursday, hoping it would lengthen the Christmas shopping season and give a boost to the economy. After a great deal of criticism, the holiday went back to the fourth Thursday.
Here on the North Fork, where English settlers lived among Native Americans briefly after their arrival in 1640, it is easy to imagine that first feast at Plymouth. Venison was served, along with the wild bird that was ubiquitous then as it is today, turkey, as well as an abundance of shellfish. Sounds like a Thanksgiving menu many of us will enjoy this week.
Take the time this Thanksgiving to celebrate what is good and right and what works and what made this experiment in representative government successful for so long. Perhaps go back and look over President Lincoln’s proclamation that first Thanksgiving, which he finished in this way:
“…[we] 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.”
Say amen, somebody.