“Thanksgiving is a time of togetherness and gratitude.” – Nigel Hamilton
As we all sit in preparation of Thanksgiving, we are likely inundated with visions of turkey, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie, and the consumption of perhaps a little too much alcohol. Maybe we sit anxiously preparing a Tweet for “what we are thankful for” that will receive the maximum number of retweets. There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of this, but like so many other holidays the true and original meaning has been lost to commercialization. We are all guilty of this in some way, shape, or form to be sure, but with where we find ourselves as a nation — as a culture — it is critical we come to a better understanding of what Thanksgiving means.
Thanksgiving is not seen as a religious holiday today, but it’s origins are based in a foundation of faithful observance to the hand God plays in our lives. By its very nature, when you give “thanks” you give it to someone or something. First by George Washington and then by Abraham Lincoln, the intention of declaring a national Thanksgiving was to give this thanks to God. Historians and pundits alike push a narrative that Washington and Lincoln were either anti-religious or proscribed to Deism, which asserts that God exists but does not interfere in the machinations of man. This theory should be obliterated, and the reason we all get together on the fourth Thursday of November realized, by simply reading the Thanksgiving Proclamations written by these two American giants.
Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation
In the wake of so many years of turmoil and uncertainty, in 1789 it looked as if a new age of stability had dawned on the American continent. Sitting in the temporary capitol of New York City, Washington, more than anyone, knew what the nation had endured — years of political instability resulting in conflict with Great Britain, independence, a costly and protracted war against the the most powerful army on the planet, economic downturn, severe inflation, and a total reorganization of the political structure ending in the U.S. Constitution. Washington did not understand this tangentially — he had played a leading role in all of it — and he knew that a higher power had a hand in its outcome. He said as much when he wrote that the the nation should give thanks, “for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war.”
In 1789, having just assumed office as the nation’s first President, he intimately understood, as did most Americans, that the country sat affixed — nearly frozen — between past and future. The conflict passed, Washington knew how essential it was to have the nation pause to give thanks to God for their ability to endure such chaos, and also recognize their good fortune of a bright future before them.
Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation
It wasn’t until 1863, on October 3rd—the exact same day as Washington’s first proclamation in 1789—that Thanksgiving forever became a national holiday. While Washington’s came after the conflict, Lincoln’s came during. Though the nation was in the midst of horror, there was still much to be thankful for. “In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity […] 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 theatre of military conflict,” Lincoln said as he addressed the nation in his written address. Though the conflict seemed interminable, Lincoln presented an image of a bright future beyond the haze of war, much like Washington did.
Lincoln, in a way, saw the Civil War as punishment for our national sins which inspired him to write that on Thanksgiving we should all recognize and reflect on our failures in order to move forward as better versions of ourselves. Thanksgiving is a time shared with the ones closest to us in a mutual understanding of past transgressions, as well as past blessings, in order to confront coming challenges. The appeal to God was front and center in Lincoln’s address as he wrote, “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.”
Reflection, Recognition, and Restoration
Both of these proclamations served the same purpose at different times. It stood as a call to engage in a national pause devoid of politics. Not once in either proclamation was party, politics, or policy mentioned. Thanksgiving has, and still should be seen as a time of reflection, recognition, and restoration. In both proclamations God is referenced exactly seven times in only a few sentences — this is by design, not happenstance.
Today, much like 1789 and 1863, we stand at a national crossroads. Whether we sit in the midst of conflict like in Lincoln’s time or stand on the precipice of coming conflict, we need to remember the actual purpose of Thanksgiving. Let us all take a collective breath and thank God for all that we have been afforded.
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