Running hand-in-hand with Americans’ quest for freedom throughout our collective history is the tradition of giving thanks. It is so important to this nation, that the practice has been institutionalized in what has become the most important non-religious holiday of the year.
Tradition holds that after the Pilgrims arrived on this continent is 1621, they shared a meal with the native Americans and gave thanks.
For to the west, and several years earlier, a similar ceremony took place near what we now call El Paso. According to Spanish historical records, the first Thanksgiving was observed there by the banks of the Rio Grande in 1598.
But it was the event in the northeast that led to the formalization of the holiday. The governing council of Charlestown, Mass., declared a day of thanksgiving in June 1676, the oldest known official proclamation. The Continental Congress decreed that Nov. 28, 1782, should be observed as “a day of solemn thanksgiving to God.”
The holiday Americans enjoy today is a feast of that bounty we continue to enjoy, but one that too often ignores the simple reasons and the harsh conditions from which it emerged. The Pilgrims invited outsiders to sit with them at the table, and after doing so they expressed gratitude for what turned out to be minimal, if not inadequate, provisions.
America has indeed grown richer since those days centuries, but on most other days it seems the urgency for expressing thanks — whether it’s to a deity or to other people who help us — has diminished.
Throughout its history, American presidents have issued proclamation of thanksgiving, but the prototype of today’s holiday was issued by President Lincoln. In 1863, during the middle of a war that ripped the nation in two, the U.S. president proclaimed the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving.
His remarks are worth repeating, whether the times we share at the holiday season. They are especially poignant, especially considering the dark period from which they emanated:
“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.”
In times of war, and particularly in times of peace, Americans have much for which to be thankful every day of the year. The holiday only helps to underscore that fact.