In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation calling for a recurring, national day of Thanksgiving to be observed each November. Citing economic prosperity, population growth, international harmony and Union victories in the Civil War, he said “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.”
Presidents back to George Washington had called for days of thanks for specific events and occurrences, but Lincoln’s proclamation is considered the one to have created the Thanksgiving holiday. It is viewed as the quintessential American celebration, but the tradition of giving thanks to a higher power is rooted in cultures worldwide.
The ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians all held harvest-related celebrations and festivals. Many Native American tribes had harvest traditions, as did the inhabitants of Western Europe. European colonists brought their giving thanks to North America, and the 1621 Pilgrim thanksgiving at Plymouth serves as the model for next week’s holiday.
One characteristic is an acknowledgment of the presence of a creator. The celebration is to give thanks to God.
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Surprisingly, we as a society have not removed God as the provider of the bounty and the source of the blessings we enjoy. Either a rampant political correctness or a valuable and long overdue recognition of the separation of church and state have reduced the role of a creator in many holidays originally celebrated in his honor.
Pull up a calendar of any public school district and you will find that the Christmas and Easter holidays are now winter and spring breaks. Christmas is especially affected by secularization. Christmas carols are absent from many public music performances held in December, and the greeting “Merry Christmas” is often avoided in fear that it may be considered an offensive presumption, regarding the religious beliefs of others.
We even manage to have occasional brouhahas over the designation of the decorated evergreen tree in front of the White House — is it a Christmas tree or a holiday tree? But Thanksgiving is still there on the calendar. And although it has evolved into the unofficial start of the Christmas shopping season and is perhaps defined more by football games and gluttony than prayerful reflection, it is still by definition a national observance, and by proclamation of every U.S. president from Lincoln through President Barack Obama, a time to give thanks to God for the blessings we have received individually and as a nation.
On Thursday I will watch football games, celebrate with family and friends, eat and drink too much and maybe even start looking online for Christmas gifts. But I will also give thanks. I will give thanks for the life I have been given, and the great friends and loving family I share it with. I will give thanks for joys and successes, and thanks for the support received when suffering through tragedies and failures.
I’ll give thanks for the freedom and opportunities I enjoy as a citizen of this great nation. I’ll give thanks for all the blessings I’ve received and I’ll be giving this thanks to God.
James Byrne is a former U.S. Army officer and semi-retired telecommunications engineering manager. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.