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Thanksgiving!

By Kathleen Britton

Kathleen Britton

When it was suggested I write an article about Thanksgiving, its history, its meaning, and the traditions we observe, my first thoughts were family, turkey dinner, and giving thanks for all we have as a nation.  Only when I began looking into the origins of the holiday did I find the intricate background and details of the day we celebrate.

Merriam-Webster defines Thanksgiving as:

Thanksgiving noun

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thanks·​giv·​ing thaŋ(k)s-ˈgi-viŋg  

1a: capitalized : THANKSGIVING DAY

  b: a public acknowledgment or celebration of divine goodness 

2: the act of giving thanks 

3: a prayer expressing gratitude 

Historically, there are quite a few anomalies.  I’m not going to include all the specifics but will highlight the major beginning factors.  I will list my resources at the end of this article if you choose to delve further into the details.

The “First Thanksgiving” was celebrated between September and November 1621 after the Pilgrims’ first harvest.  It was a three-day event attended by the 90 survivors of the Mayflower and New England and Virginia colonists.  It included fasting, followed by feasts, church services, and other community gatherings.  They gave thanks to God for blessing their harvests, the ending of a drought, and military victories to name a few.  The menu included fish, venison, wild turkeys, etc., as well as corn and other fruits and vegetables from their harvest.  

In 1777, the First National Proclamation of Thanksgiving was given by Congress.  Delegate Samuel Adams created the first draft and Congress adopted the final version:

“For as much as it is the indispensable Duty of all Men to adore the superintending Providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with Gratitude their Obligation to him for Benefits received, and to implore such farther Blessings as they stand in Need of: And it had pleased him in his abundant Mercy, not only to continue to use the innumerable Bounties of his common Providence; but also to smile upon us in the Prosecution of a just and necessary war, for the Defense and Establishment of our unalienable Rights and Liberties; particularly in that he hath been pleased, in so great a Measure, to prosper the Means used for the Support of our Troops, and to crown our Arms with most signal success: 

It is therefore recommended to the legislative or executive Powers of these United States to set apart Thursday, the eighteenth Day of December next, for Solemn Thanksgiving and Praise: That at one Time and with one Voice, the good People may express the grateful Feelings of their Hearts, and consecrate themselves to the Service of their Divine Benefactor; and that, together with their sincere Acknowledgments and Offerings, they may join the penitent Confession of their manifold Sins, whereby they had forfeited every Favor; and their humble and earnest Supplication that it may please God through the Merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of Remembrance; That it may please him graciously to afford his Blessing on the Governments of these States respectively, and prosper the public Council of the whole: To inspire our Commanders, both by Land and Sea, and all under them, with that Wisdom and Fortitude which may render them fit Instruments, under the Providence of Almighty God, to secure for these United States, the greatest of all human Blessings, Independence and Peace: That it may please him, to prosper the Trade and Manufactures of the People, and the Labor of the Husbandman, that our Land may yield its Increase: To take Schools and Seminaries of Education, so necessary for cultivating the Principles of true Liberty, Virtue and Piety, under his nurturing Hand; and 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.”

And it is further recommended, That servile Labor, and such Recreation, as, though at other Times innocent, may be unbecoming the Purpose of this Appointment, be omitted on so solemn an Occasion.”

After being amended and changed many times until George Washington, as president, created the first Thanksgiving Day designated by the national government of the United States of America on October 3, 1789:

“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 increase 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 on the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.”

President John Adams declared Thanksgivings in 1798 and 1799/

President Thomas Jefferson, being a skeptic of the idea of divine intervention, did not declare any Thanksgiving Days during his presidency.

President James Madison reinstated Thanksgiving in 1814.

President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day, to be celebrated on the 26th, the final Thursday of November 1863.

After that, the presidential proclamations were edited with regard to which Thursday Thanksgiving would be celebrated.

Turkey’s Pardoning by the President of the United States began in 1973.

Going forward in time, the 1920s brought the first Thanksgiving Day parades; the 1930s began the tradition of Thanksgiving football games; the 1980s brought Championship Wrestling; and, at the “turn of the century,” pumpkin chunkin, Ice Hockey, NASCAR races, turkey trots, and, well; you name it!

Biblically, thanksgiving means devotion, sacrifice, praise, or an offering.  It’s a time to glorify God as an act of worship, giving thanks for all things as part of God’s providence.  It focuses on the relationships between God and man.  The Pilgrims composed the Mayflower Compact upon their arrival at New Plymouth, which honored God; earnestly giving Him thanks for His abundant blessings. Thanksgiving begins with acknowledging God as faithful. 

Having studied Thanksgiving, its origin, and history, has opened my heart and eyes further to how blessed we are; as a nation, as individuals, and as a creation of God.  I wish all of you a blessed Thanksgiving.

Kathleen Britton

References:

“Thanksgiving”, George Washington’s Mount Vernon

“Thanksgiving Proclamation”, 3 October 1789, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress.

“Transcript for Abraham Lincoln Thanksgiving Proclamation 1863”, National Archives

“Pilgrims and Parades:  A brief history of Thanksgiving”, Newsworks.org

“Presidential Turkey Pardon”, Snopes

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