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Rediscover Thanksgiving’s Origins As A National Uniter During The Civil War

Thanksgiving godmother Sarah Hale

Americans have an annoying knack for purging holidays of their true meaning. We’ve secularized Christmas and Easter, turned Independence Day into an excuse to get drunk and make noise, and forgotten the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Thanksgiving is no exception.

The point of Thanksgiving is — duh — to give thanks. Giving thanks implies a recipient of that thanks. Yet, true to form, we have managed to remove almost all the holiday’s original meaning by renaming it “Turkey Day” and turning it into an opportunity for people who are already champion consumers to consume even more.

Sarah Josepha Hale, the author of the children’s song “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” has historically received much of the credit for the establishment of Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Pilgrim Hall, a museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts, dedicated to preserving and passing down the history and stories of the Pilgrims, calls Hale the “godmother of Thanksgiving.”

Hale was an established poet and writer when she began, in 1837, writing a series of editorials advocating for a national Thanksgiving holiday. George Washington, John Adams, and James Madison had issued Thanksgiving proclamations in the early years of the nation, but after Madison’s 1799 proclamation, the practice ceased.

As the Civil War approached and the nation became increasingly divided, Hale saw a national Thanksgiving observance as a means of bridging the divide. On Sept. 28, 1863, at the height of the war, she wrote a letter to President Abraham Lincoln entreating him to call for a national celebration of Thanksgiving. On Oct. 3, he did so.

Thanksgiving Should Bridge Divides and Cultivate Unity

A review of Hale’s campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday is a good way to remember what Thanksgiving is about. In her writings, Hale emphasized our identity as Americans, our need for community, and our dependence on God — all things we too often forget in our own observances.

In 1860, Hale wrote:

Everything that contributes to bind us in one vast empire together, to quicken the sympathy that makes us feel from the icy North to the sunny South that we are one family, each a member of a great and free Nation, not merely the unit of a remote locality, is worthy of being cherished. We have sought to reawaken and increase this sympathy, believing that the fine filaments of the affections are stronger than laws to keep the Union of our States sacred in the hearts of our people. … We believe our Thanksgiving Day, if fixed and perpetuated, will be a great and sanctifying promoter of this national spirit.

In other words, Thanksgiving is an opportunity to remember our past and emphasize what brings us together more than what divides us. If it’s been a while since you reviewed the history from which we draw our most abiding Thanksgiving traditions, now is a great time to do so.

Most of our cherished Thanksgiving stories about the Mayflower, the Pilgrims, Squanto, Massasoit, Priscilla Alden, Myles Standish, and William Brewster come from William Bradford’s “Of Plymouth Plantation.” Every American should read the whole thing or, at the very least, the account of the first Thanksgiving. Here are selected excerpts. Here’s the full text.

In 1837, Hale wrote that Thanksgiving “is a festival which will never become obsolete, for it cherishes the best affections of the heart — the social and domestic ties. It calls together the dispersed members of the family circle, and brings plenty, joy and gladness to the dwellings of the poor and lowly.”

There are many ways to cultivate our “social and domestic ties” at Thanksgiving. Consider donating to a food bank or helping prepare a meal for those in need. Invite someone who would otherwise spend the day alone to your Thanksgiving meal. Give to a charity of your choice. Let go of a long-held grudge. Pray for someone you love — or for someone you don’t — who is going through a difficult time. This will help turn your focus away from self and outward toward others, thereby helping to provide the proper focus for the holiday.

Don’t Forget the Object of Your Thanks

In 1852, Hale wrote:

THE FOURTH OF JULY is the exponent of independence and civil freedom. THANKSGIVING DAY is the national pledge of Christian faith in God, acknowledging him as the dispenser of blessings. These two festivals should be joyfully and universally observed throughout our whole country, and thus incorporated in our habits of thought as inseparable from American life.

Perhaps nothing gets so lost in our contemporary celebration of Thanksgiving as the one whom the celebration should be about — the giver of all good things. If you have forgotten or neglected God in your observance of Thanksgiving, consider making a change this year.

There are many ways to do so. Find a church in your area that is holding a Thanksgiving service, and plan to attend. If you’re not accustomed to praying before meals, use Thanksgiving as an opportunity to do so. Maybe you’ll start a new family tradition! You don’t have to say an “ex corde” (“from the heart” or extemporaneous) prayer. The Lord’s Prayer will do. So will a psalm. Some to consider are Psalm 100, 117, 136, and 147.

One of my family’s Thanksgiving traditions is to spend some time on Thanksgiving Day sharing what we are thankful for. So you don’t put people on the spot, let them know ahead of time if you plan to do this. Then, at a designated time — perhaps before saying grace, during or after your meal, or at some other time during your Thanksgiving gathering — have those present take turns sharing what they are thankful for. Appoint someone, perhaps a younger person in your midst, to make a list of the blessings that have been shared, decorate it, and post it in a prominent place.

Thanksgiving Becomes a National Holiday

When President Lincoln issued his Thanksgiving proclamation in 1863, he issued it only for that year. He issued another proclamation in 1864, and every president since then has maintained the practice.

In 1871, Hale began advocating for Congress to institute Thanksgiving as an annual national holiday. It was not until 1941, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law a bill setting the fourth Thursday of November as an official U.S. holiday, that Hale’s 1871 vision was complete:

As things now stand, our Thanksgiving is exposed to the chances of the time. Unless the President or the Governor of the State in office happens to see fit, no day is appointed for its observance. Is not this a state of things which calls for instant remedy? Should not our festival be assured to us by law? We hope to see, before many months have elapsed, perhaps before our next Thanksgiving, the passage of an act by Congress appointing the last Thursday in November as a perpetual holiday, wherein the whole nation may unite in praise to Almighty God for his bounty and love, in rejoicing over the blessings of the year, in the union of families, and in acts of charity and kindness to the poor.