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Roots of the Thanksgiving Day holiday in America

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By Dave Taylor

Sometimes in this busy land of plenty we need to stop and review our national and spiritual heritage to remind us how we got to where we are today.

Throughout history mankind has celebrated the harvest with ceremonies of thanksgiving. Harvest festivals and thanksgiving celebrations were held by many cultures: the Hebrews, the ancient Greeks, Romans, Chinese and Egyptians.

Thanksgiving in America began with a people who by today’s standards had little for which to be thankful. A small band of Pilgrims fleeing religious persecution came to New England in 1620. During that first devastating winter in the New World nearly half their number died. Without the help of a neighboring colony of Indians, the entire number likely would have perished. But following the summer of 1621 a bountiful harvest was realized, again with the help of their native American friends. Governor William Bradford, leader of the Pilgrims, proclaimed a day of thanksgiving and prayer and invited the neighboring colony of Indians to join with the Pilgrim band in a feast of celebration that lasted three days. An American tradition was born.

Harvest celebrations of thanksgiving in America were held annually in colonial New England. Following the American Revolution, the first official proclamation by President George Washington called for a day of thanksgiving and prayer in 1789, saying, “it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits...”

Thereafter, harvest festivals were held at the discretion of the individual states. In 1846, magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale began a 17-year campaign to have a national holiday of thanksgiving declared annually which would be observed and celebrated by all Americans everywhere at the same time. Her dream was realized at the height of the devastating American Civil War, when President Abraham Lincoln issued the 1863 proclamation that established the national holiday we observe yet today. The words of this great man of simple Kentucky beginnings provide a glimpse into the great faith of a people who could be thankful for even the smallest of blessings during our nation’s darkest hour.

As a formality every president since Lincoln has issued a Thanksgiving Day proclamation. Today, our Thanksgiving Day is often less about being thankful to the One who spreads the table of the bountiful harvest, and more about engorging ourselves at the table He provides.

The Thanksgiving holiday weekend is one of the busiest travel times of the year. Those who cannot come home, call home. The lure of hearth and home tugs at our heartstrings during this season as families gather from far and near to make memories, renew traditions and share their love for one another. For some, Thanksgiving Day presents an opportunity to mend broken relationships. For others it’s a time to treasure memories of loved ones who have moved on from the family circle here to an eternal homecoming.

I hope each of you have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday season, that you will take time to be thankful, that your holiday will be filled with the joy of the families and friends you have been blessed with, that those who can’t make their way home will make time to call home, that even though you may be feeling the pain of someone absent from your family circle you will be thankful for the blessing that person was in your life while he/she was here.

I hope you join me in a prayer for all those around the globe who are in uniform and representing the cause of freedom which we all hold dear. May God keep them safe and bring them home soon.

I would be remiss if I didn’t include the eloquence of Mr. Lincoln echoing down through history since 1863 as I wish each of you a most blessed, Happy Thanksgiving Day!

Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation

“The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful years 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 can not fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.

“In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict, while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

“Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the field of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than theretofore. Population has steadily increased notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

“No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

“It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. 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, tranquility, and union.

“In testimony wherof I have herunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.”

[Signed]
A. Lincoln