Last week we celebrated Veteran's Day, a national holiday to honor all of those who have served and continue to serve in defense of liberty on our behalf. Thank you, veterans, for your service. Next week we will celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday. At its inception, it was a uniquely American holiday, with deep historical roots and significance. To better understand the virtue of gratitude, I thought it might be interesting to elaborate on the foundation and history of our November holiday.
The celebration of Thanksgiving has its roots in the 1621 harvest feast celebrated in Plymouth, Massachusetts by the Puritan founders, or Pilgrims, along with the Indian tribes without whom they would not have survived. The feast was a celebration of their survival and an expression of gratitude to God for that. Mayflower Compact signer and Plymouth Governor William Bradford wrote in his journal: “Thus out of small beginnings greater things have been produced by His hand that made all things of nothing and gives being to all things that are; and, as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone unto many, yea in some sort to our whole nation.”
During the American Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress designated days of thanksgiving each year. The First National Proclamation of Thanksgiving was made in 1777. Of that proclamation, Samuel Adams wrote to another Declaration signer, Richard Henry Lee, noting the specificity of the language that, “the good people may express the grateful feelings of their hearts and join … their supplication that it may please God.”
President George Washington, in his First Thanksgiving Proclamation, declared: “Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor … I do recommend and assign [this Thanksgiving Day] to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”
In 1789, after adopting the Bill of Rights to our Constitution, among the first official acts of Congress was approving a motion for proclamation of a national day of thanksgiving, recommending that citizens gather together and give thanks to God for their new nation’s blessings.
On October 3, 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed an “annual” National Day of Thanksgiving: “In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity … 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 … 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.”
After 1863, presidents issued annual proclamations of Thanksgiving.
In 1941, with World War II on the horizon, the Senate and House approved the fourth Thursday of November as a National Day of Thanksgiving, perpetuating the observance annually.
And thus, we celebrate in gratitude and reverence. If you would like to read a more detailed account of the history of Thanksgiving, this is the best that I have found so far.
Gratitude has a clear historical precedent and a strong foundation in our faith and tradition, and it didn’t start in this country nor in this epoch. The concept was framed well by Roman statesman and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero: “Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all the others.”
As I reviewed what others have written about gratitude, these themes and observations coalesced:
In President Reagan’s final Thanksgiving message, he wrote: “We Americans have so much for which to be thankful… But prosperity is not an end in itself. It helps us pay attention to the more important things: raising our children as we want them to be raised, helping others in need, and bringing nations together in peace. … We will give thanks for these and one thing more: our freedom. Yes, in America, freedom seems like the air around us: It’s there; it’s sweet, though we rarely give it a thought. Yet as the air fills our lungs, freedom fills our souls. It gives breath to our laughter and joy. It gives voice to our songs. It gives us strength as we race for our dreams. Think of those around the world who cannot bow their heads in prayer without risking their lives. … And then think of how blessed we are to be Americans. Yes, as we gather together this Thanksgiving to ask the Lord’s blessings. … Let us thank Him for our peace, prosperity, and freedom.”
Those words are no less true today than they were 34 years ago. Take time this next week to reflect about gratitude. Why are you grateful? For what are you grateful? Who benefits from that? How do you demonstrate more gratitude? If you're not grateful, why not? If you want to enjoy a more substantive conversation around the Thanksgiving table, ask a few questions about gratitude and take time to discuss the concept. Whilst you are experiencing the blessings for which you are grateful, you can be deepening your understanding and relationship with one another.
Happy Veteran’s Day. Happy Thanksgiving. Be grateful. I look forward to your feedback and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.