Very probably, the majority of those who celebrate Thanksgiving Day in the United States identify it as a day to reflect on and give thanks or express appreciation for all the goodness and bounty in their lives, from their family and friends to the creature comforts they enjoy. Unfortunately, as an aside, for many years it has not been a day to express thanks or appreciation that the country is not at war.
The event and the celebrations associated with it began (and, for the majority of Americans, continues today) as religious observances. Well before the Pilgrims celebrated an abundant harvest with the indigenous inhabitants in Plymouth in 1621, the practice of “giving thanks” was common. According to a November 20, 2007 article in USA Today, a Spanish explorer named Pedro Menendez de Aviles, who landed on September 8, 1565 celebrated a feast of thanksgiving with Timucua Indians, dining on bean soup.
Later, it became a regularly celebrated practice to set aside a day (or more) to “give thanks” for the abundance enjoyed from successful harvests and, later, for all the good circumstances in which we as a people found ourselves. It took a while, though, for formalization at the national level. That occurred through legislative proclamation. On November 1, 1777, the Second Continental Congress recommended to the executives of the colonies that December 18, 1777 be set aside as a day of thanksgiving during which the American people “may express the grateful feelings of their hearts and consecrate themselves to the service of their divine benefactor” and during which they might “join the penitent confession of their manifold sins . . . that it may please God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of remembrance.” At the same time, Congress recommended that Americans petition God “to prosper the means of religion for the promotion and enlargement of that kingdom which consisteth in righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.”
Then, in 1782, the Confederation Congress saw a need to give thanks for delivering the country from war and into independence, issuing the following proclamation:
IT being the indispensable duty of all Nations, not only to offer up their supplications to ALMIGHTY GOD, the giver of all good, for his gracious assistance in a time of distress, but also in a solemn and public manner to give him praise for his goodness in general, and especially for great and signal interpositions of his providence in their behalf: Therefore the United States in Congress assembled, taking into their consideration the many instances of divine goodness to these States, in the course of the important conflict in which they have been so long engaged; the present happy and promising state of public affairs; and the events of the war, in the course of the year now drawing to a close; particularly the harmony of the public Councils, which is so necessary to the success of the public cause; the perfect union and good understanding which has hitherto subsisted between them and their Allies, notwithstanding the artful and unwearied attempts of the common enemy to divide them; the success of the arms of the United States, and those of their Allies, and the acknowledgment of their independence by another European power, whose friendship and commerce must be of great and lasting advantage to these States:—– Do hereby recommend to the inhabitants of these States in general, to observe, and request the several States to interpose their authority in appointing and commanding the observation of THURSDAY the twenty-eight day of NOVEMBER next, as a day of solemn THANKSGIVING to GOD for all his mercies: and they do further recommend to all ranks, to testify to their gratitude to GOD for his goodness, by a cheerful obedience of his laws, and by promoting, each in his station, and by his influence, the practice of true and undefiled religion, which is the great foundation of public prosperity and national happiness.
Done in Congress, at Philadelphia, the eleventh day of October, in the year of our LORD one thousand seven hundred and eighty-two, and of our Sovereignty and Independence, the seventh.
Seven years later, George Washington made the following proclamation:
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. That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks, for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation, for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war, for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed, for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.
And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions, to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually, to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed, to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shown kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord. To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and Us, and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.
Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.
Thanksgiving Day did not become a Federal holiday until 1863. Every year since 1863, when Abraham Lincoln issued the following proclamation, we have celebrated Thanksgiving as a Federal holiday:
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.
No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.
It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. 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.
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.
Since then, the religious foundations of the holiday have ebbed and flowed. I think the celebration has become more spiritual than religious for many people, (especially nonbelievers), i.e., a day of appreciation rather than thanks. It has become a day to reflect on our bounty. Fortunately, I think, it also has become a day to acknowledge that not everyone has reason to appreciate their bounty and, following that acknowledgement, to do something about it.
I saw a report on the local television news last night that, after the North Texas Food Bank ran out of turkeys to give to people standing in line to get one so they, too, could enjoy a nice meal on Thanksgiving Day, people flooded the organization with donations. One woman brought 100 turkeys to the Food Bank. I really appreciate hearing about people who do more than talk about sharing the bounty.
So, I’ve done my early morning reading about Thanksgiving and have shared it with anyone who has read this far. If anyone who reads this is interested in a non-traditional Thanksgiving meal, you’re welcome to come to my house for dinner today. Unless we have a change of plans, we’re having tacos; doing a turkey for just the two of us just wasn’t on our list of things we felt compelled to do today. But we bought one! So, when the mood strikes us, we’ll brine it and roast it and, when we eat it, we’ll be appreciative of our bounty, just as we are on this “official” day of thanks.