With Thanksgiving upon us, I think it is important to recall what prompted the Pilgrims to celebrate their first Thanksgiving, but even more so, to recall the reason it became a national holiday 200 years later.
That first winter for the pilgrims in Plymouth was very hard. Almost half of them died of either disease, starvation or cold. But, over the course of that first year, the Pilgrims got to know some Native Americans who helped them learn how to raise crops in this new land. Because of the wisdom and advice of the Native Americans, the fall of 1621 looked much different to the pilgrims than the fall of 1620. The harvest of 1621 was so successful that the pilgrims planned a celebration and invited the Native Americans to join them. This celebration is considered our country’s first Thanksgiving celebration.
And while there continued to be Thanksgiving celebrations every year throughout the land, even as America grew, there was not a day specifically declared our national holiday until the year 1863, 200 years after that very first Thanksgiving in Plymouth.
You see, in various parts of the U.S. people would indeed set aside a day for giving thanks for their blessings. But, what was going on in our nation in 1863? We were in the midst of war. But, not just any war – the Civil War. As we know, when a nation has a common enemy it can be a unifying experience. But this was a war that pit state against state, neighbor against neighbor, and in some cases even brother against brother. This war had the potential to utterly destroy our nation from within. And, it was the reality of this threat that caused one woman to write to President Abraham Lincoln and implore him to establish a national holiday of Thanksgiving in an effort to give the citizens of America something they could hold in common.
The woman was Sarah Josepha Hale. She was a wise and compelling woman. And, President Lincoln saw the value in her idea. At that moment in our history, America did need something that would unite us, when there was so much that seemed to be dividing us. So, President Lincoln set forth the first National Day of Thanksgiving with his declaration in these words:
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.
Therefore, we come together as a nation to collectively pause to give thanks to God for all the blessings we enjoy as citizens of this great land.
We give thanks to Sarah Hale for lifting up the value of having one day in which we are all of the same mind which is to hold in our hearts an attitude of gratitude to One outside ourselves, to God the Father, for all the gifts we have been given. To reach across the table and across the street in unity, acknowledging the one thing we all hold in common – that we are forever indebted to One who is greater than us and is over all things.
Blessings to you at this time of giving thanks.