Thanksgiving in America: How the holiday has evolved

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By Dave Taylor

The Thanksgiving Day holiday is an American tradition dating to the time of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Mass., in the early 17th century. What was once a singular occurrence of thankfulness among a colony of strangers in a new land for the blessings of Providence in their first year in New England has since evolved through multiple cultural changes as each new generation survived the last to become akin to a bridesmaid in the shadow of the commercially popular Christmas holiday season.

Often, the Thanksgiving holiday becomes shuffled to the back seats of the annual journey of this inhabited orb through the cosmos. Riding up front are the commercial influences of the Halloween and Christmas seasons, which take precedence over what was once observed as a holy day in the American mindset.

After the Israelites of old had been freed from a long period of slavery in Egypt Moses led them to their ultimate destination, known as the Promised Land, the land we know as the nation of Israel held by their descendants today. Moses knew he would not live to set foot in this promised “land of milk and honey,” so before his people made the final leg of their journey their aging leader sat down with them for a final time to admonish the Israelites not to turn their backs on Jehovah who had led them out of bondage, through the Red Sea and the desert en route to the land of promise.

Moses reminded the people of all they had been through and left them with this stern charge: “When the Lord your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you—a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the Lord…” (Deut. 6:10-12)

Perhaps we need another Moses today to remind us of our great national heritage, especially regarding the Thanksgiving holiday, lest we “forget the Lord.”

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, the Romans, the Chinese and Egyptians. Jewish families have celebrated Sukkoth, an autumn harvest festival, for more than 3,000 years.

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 of disease or malnutrition. Without the help of a neighboring colony of American natives the entire number likely would have perished.

Following the summer of 1621 a bountiful harvest was realized, again with the help of their native friends. Governor William Bradford, leader of the Pilgrims, proclaimed a day of thanksgiving and prayer to Almighty God. He invited the neighboring Indian colony 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 in the 17th and 18th centuries. Following the American Revolution the first official proclamation issued by our nation’s first president called for a day of thanksgiving and prayer in 1789. George Washington’s proclamation stated “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 annual holiday we observe today. The words of this Kentucky native of simple 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:

“It is the duty of nations as well as of all men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God; to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations are blessed whose God is the Lord.

“We know that by His divine law, nations, like individuals, are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world. May we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war which now desolates the land may be a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people?

“We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven; we have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no other nation has ever grown.

“But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us.

“It has seemed to me fit and proper that God 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 these United States, and those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”

President Lincoln’s words—not mine—continue to reverberate with truth pertinent to the day and age in which we live these 148 years later.

We observe a holiday that today is less about the God who spreads the table of the bountiful harvest, and more about engorging ourselves at the table He provides.

Dr. Billy Graham reminds us that Thanksgiving should be “a time when we especially remember who gave us everything we have. Yes, we think we have worked and earned the money to buy things we enjoy, but who gave us the ability to work? Who put us in a country that has such abundance and such opportunity? The Bible says in I Chronicles 29:12: ‘Wealth and honor come from you… In your hands are strength and power to exalt and give strength to all.’ It is good to take one day in the year to give thanks to God. But we should make it a daily practice also.”

The lure of home and hearth and home tugs at our heartstrings during this season to make memories, renew traditions and share our love for one another. For some, Thanksgiving presents an opportunity to mend broken relationships. For others it’s a time to treasure memories of loved ones who have moved on to an eternal homecoming.

This Thanksgiving will be poignant in the Taylor household due to the absence of our only son who is overseas with our military serving to protect the freedoms and blessings we enjoy in the hope that peoples of distant lands can one day revel in the joy that the silence of the guns have been replaced by the bustling sound of freedom and Democracy.
I am truly thankful for so many blessings—more than I can count, more than I deserve.

I hope you will reflect on the message of Lincoln to a nation under the duress of civil war and apply those words to the stresses and issues we deal with as Americans today. I hope we all realize, as did Lincoln, “and proven by all history, that those nations are blessed whose God is the Lord.”

Happy Thanksgiving!