The Meaning of Thanksgiving: 1789, 1863, 1942, 2018
Everyone loves Thanksgiving, a day dedicated to over-indulging in traditional gastronomic delights with family and friends, capped off with a little football.
My deceased sister Andrea, a left-leaning political activist, once told me that Thanksgiving was her favorite holiday because it was neither religious nor political and all one had to do was show up and eat. But Andrea was, as most Americans are, unaware that the origins of Thanksgiving were both religious and political.
To honor the true spirit and reason why we gather together, I offer excerpts from Thanksgiving Proclamations issued by three of our nation’s most revered presidents: George Washington, whose leadership birthed the nation; Abraham Lincoln, who preserved the Union; and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who helped save the world.
George Washington was not only the “Father of Our Country,” he also fathered Thanksgiving. His proclamation on Oct. 3, 1789, designated the 26th day of November for “public thanksgiving” to “Almighty God,” acknowledging His “favor” in helping the people of the United States “establish a form of government,” then in operation for only seven months.
Fortunately for Washington, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which zealously wages court battles to maintain a constitutional separation between religion and government, was 187 years in the future.
Washington’s proclamation (pictured) begins:
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 -- and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.
Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next 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.
Fast-forward 74 years to Oct. 3, 1863, when Abraham Lincoln is usually and incorrectly credited with establishing Thanksgiving; instead, his proclamation only declared it a federal holiday.
Lincoln, like Washington before him, did not dedicate the day to gluttony and football, but gave thanks to the “Almighty” with prayers that the Union would be restored. The entire proclamation reads like a solemn, beautifully written church sermon and, for the sake of brevity, what follows is only the ending:
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.
Seventy-nine years later, war again dominated a president’s Thanksgiving proclamation. On Nov. 26, 1942, while victory in World War II was far from assured, Franklin D. Roosevelt offered thanks to the Lord, asked for “Thy holy Protection” and incorporated Psalm 23. Here is FDR’s entire proclamation reflecting wartime’s humble circumstances:
"It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord." Across the uncertain ways of space and time our hearts echo those words, for the days are with us again when, at the gathering of the harvest, we solemnly express our dependence upon Almighty God.
The final months of this year, now almost spent, find our Republic and the Nations joined with it waging a battle on many fronts for the preservation of liberty.
In giving thanks for the greatest harvest in the history of our Nation, we who plant and reap can well resolve that in the year to come we will do all in our power to pass that milestone; for by our labors in the fields we can share some part of the sacrifice with our brothers and sons who wear the uniform of the United States.
It is fitting that we recall now the reverent words of George Washington, "Almighty God, we make our earnest prayer that Thou wilt keep the United States in Thy holy Protection," and that every American in his own way lift his voice to heaven.
I recommend that all of us bear in mind this great Psalm: "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
"He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters.
"He restoreth my soul; He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake.
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
"Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
"Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."
Inspired with faith and courage by these words, let us turn again to the work that confronts us in this time of national emergency: in the armed services and the merchant marine; in factories and offices; on farms and in the mines; on highways, railways, and airways; in other places of public service to the Nation; and in our homes.
Seventy-six years later, Americans are now consumed less with giving thanks to God and more about how to avoid Thanksgiving conversation blow-ups.
Here is my advice:
No talking about politics, religion, transgender issues, climate change, or “fake news.”
Leave your “Make America Great Again” hat in the car because someone at the table will be offended and seated near a carving knife.
Never, ever say, “Happy Trumpsgiving.”
Love one another.
Remember Thanksgiving is about giving thanks to God.