In November, 1621, after a successful corn harvest, the governor of the new village of Plymouth, Massachusetts, organized a celebratory feast, to which he invited the Native Americans who had been of assistance to the Pilgrims. They would not repeat this “thanksgiving” until 1623, and it would not be until 1789 that George Washington would issue the first Thanksgiving proclamation by the national government of the United States, in gratitude for the conclusion of the war for independence and the ratification of the United States’ Constitution. The new holiday would be celebrated at various times until 1817, when New York State became the first of several states to make the observation of Thanksgiving an official holiday, though there was no consensus among the states about a date when the event was to be observed. In 1827, magazine editor and author, Sarah Josepha Hale started to lobby for an annual national Thanksgiving holiday; it wasn’t until 1863 that she was able to get Abraham Lincoln to accede to her request, though his proclamation cited the “lamentable civil strife” in which the country was engaged, and a desire to “heal the wounds of the nation.” Lincoln scheduled the event for the final Thursday in November, but in 1939, in an attempt to spur retail sales during the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week, where it stayed until 1941, when the current date, the fourth Thursday in November, was officially established.
The origin and history of the tradition of Thanksgiving never played a prominent role in my observations of the day; once out of grade school and the paper Pilgrim hats, turkey feathers and “Indian” buckskins, it became a day without school or work, a day to eat like a fool, and in later years, to watch football. I am not a religious man; my philosophy of “peace, love and understanding” is about the achievement of those three things in our daily interactions with each other, and not about the acknowledgement of a deity. But when I am in households that practice the tradition of joining hands around the table and vocalizing our thanks, I follow that lead. I think that my consideration for, and treatment of others can be ranked favorably with the behaviors of those who adhere to specific religious doctrines.
I doubt that much of an argument can be made against the idea that Thanksgiving is a retail event; Roosevelt utilized it in that way, and many of those who now rail against the retailers who have the temerity to want to make money and stay open on that sacred day, will take unabashed joy in the Black Friday offerings on the following day. Perhaps we do need a national day to remind us of the generosities that life has bestowed on us, even when those generosities fail to meet our basic needs, or expectations. My mother was a religious woman, and spent a lot of time encouraging me to find my “church home.” Though I did not embrace her observations of faith, I watched her behavior, watched her treatment of people who loved and loathed her, her compassion and caring for the wounded children she nursed in the pediatric ER, her embrace of her grandchildren, and I learned to be a decent human being. I will miss my mother, gone for seven years, this Thanksgiving, but I once had her with me, and the love she gave me forms the basis of my gratitude and joy for having known her. I am thankful that she gave me something so wonderful that its loss makes me miss her.
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