Mini-History: Thanksgiving

Several people have asked me what Thanksgiving as an American holiday represents. I must admit that most of the UK locals don’t quite understand it, and often end up nodding along as I ramble through regurgitations of long-lost Kindergarten lessons. I imagine that this holiday, without the connection to christianity, doesn’t seem a holiday at all. From what I had been taught in elementary classrooms and from the descriptions of my relatives, religion played a minimal role in this holiday. Indians, pilgrims, sharing, together, corn, peace, thankful. That sums it up right? Not really. Actually when I’m asked to tell the tale of a holiday that I’ve celebrated for 22 years, that old tale doesn’t really sound appealing or even reasonable when describing it to a Thanksgiving virgin.

It may have taken me longer than it should have, but I decided to look into this dilemma. Why is Thanksgiving an American national holiday? What did it mean to the people who established the holiday? I started in the National Archives, where I found this transcribed documentation of President George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation (Transcript).

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Ah, so it was about religion, and the “duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly implore his protection and favor…” It doesn’t seem so strange that we skipped that in public school classes, but how did I miss this entirely? The holiday of Thanksgiving was initially created for the United States citizens in our first year as a nation with the purpose to gives thanks to God for providing for us. I may be reading this too literally, as it has been over two hundred years since this Proclamation, but another question arises: Has Thanksgiving lost the element of spirituality, and if so, how?

Fast forward roughly a hundred years. Abraham Lincoln is in office, and the nation is amidst a civil war. Another Thanksgiving Proclamation speech Transcript. This time, there’s mention of “fruitful fields and beautiful skies…nature”. That’s more in line with the Thanksgiving that I’d held close to my heart. Food, environment, natural beauty. But then that phrase, “ever-watchful providence of Almighty God” appears at the end of the opening paragraph. Apparently the nation has, at this time, gained an appreciation for the environment, but hasn’t lost that sense of thanks given directly towards their creator, “Almighty God”.

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An interesting point to note is the mention of a nation at war, yet this holiday is one of thanks, peace and forgiveness. A similar theme runs deep in the Proclamation from the George Washington. War was a constant worry and the American leaders relied on this holiday to settle their citizens and calm any nervousness of upcoming war-related events.

Move forward in time again, to 1863. Theodore Roosevelt is in office. I’ve found an original copy of his Thanksgiving day Proclamation. The first paragraph exposes a setting that seems even nearer to the holiday I’ve experienced. Roosevelt proposes a united group of people who “understand and seek the greater good of the greater number” who can be grateful for “peace at home” and “peace with other nations [that] continues through [the] recognition of our peaceful purpose”. This speech embodies what I attempted to recall to inquirers abroad. This holiday is about a subtle and simplified idea of peace. Be it with family, friends, lovers, or strangers, Thanksgiving is one of a few times a year when every other expectation subsides for an entire day. What fills the place of society? Peace.

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Towards the end of the speech, Roosevelt mentions Almighty God and the hope that his citizens “can follow in Him in helping fellow man“. So, we haven’t lost the element of religion and spirituality. It still lingers in the crosshairs of the Proclamation, and in the minds of the American people. But, we have gained elements of natural beauty, peace, happiness. Meaningful ideas that can bring a family, and a nation together to one table to enjoy the prosperity of food, good fortune, and being alive. In a backwards kind of way, I can explain what this holiday is, or at least was, to my home nation.

In case you wanted to see the 2013 Proclamation from Barack Obama for comparison, here it is. Hope you’ve enjoyed a mini history lesson. Happy Thanksgiving to all those celebrating it, for whatever reasons!

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