Thanksgiving is a holiday with both religious and agrarian underpinnings. In the United States, it had some political overtones in its original declaration.
In some ways, as conceived, Thanksgiving is similar to the festival of Sukkot. It was intended to be a fall harvest festival when we were to give thanks to the Lord for His bounty.
I wonder if we could establish the identical holiday today. We are no longer a primarily agrarian economy. Much of our food comes from agribusiness and abroad. And, given the current politically correct climate, there seems to be a hostility to any public profession of religion or faith.
Listening to current comedy sketches, Thanksgiving has seemed to have devolved into a feast of gluttony (turkey or tofu, depending on dietary preference). Participants may or may not be on speaking terms before the feast, but the likelihood is high that many participants will not be at the end. The day kicks off with the ritual of watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and ends with participants — some having had too many adult beverages — watching holiday football games.
We traditionally trace the origins of Thanksgiving in the United States to the Pilgrims in Plymouth, Mass., in 1621. Since then, Thanksgiving proclamations abounded, as did the dates of celebration. Various proclamations were made by royal governors, John Hancock, Gen. George Washington, and the Continental Congress, each giving thanks to God for events favorable to their causes. As president, Washington proclaimed the first nationwide Thanksgiving celebration, marking Nov. 26, 1789, “as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God.”
Thanksgiving was first celebrated on the same date by all states in 1863 by a presidential proclamation of Abraham Lincoln. Influenced by the campaigning of author Sarah Josepha Hale, who lobbied for 40 years to make it an official holiday, Lincoln proclaimed the date to be the final Thursday in November in an attempt to foster a sense of American unity between the North and the South. Because of the Civil War, the Confederacy refused to recognize Lincoln’s authority, and a nationwide Thanksgiving date was not achieved until the completion of Reconstruction in the 1870s. Following the United States’ declaration of war on Japan, on Dec. 26, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a joint resolution of Congress changing the national Thanksgiving Day to the fourth Thursday of November.
Like everyone else I knew growing up, my family celebrated Thanksgiving with the traditional turkey dinner with no television interruptions. The table was set with a crepe-paper centerpiece shaped like a turkey. There were cast lead figures of pilgrims, turkeys, and pumpkins.
Other than eating, if there was a ritual associated with the holiday, it was the mandatory singing of “We Gather Together.” At the time, I did not know the Dutch Protestant origin of the hymn; however, the words seemed appropriate for the occasion.
The first stanza goes:
We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing;
He chastens and hastens His will to make known.
The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing.
Sing praises to His Name; He forgets not His own.
In the 1950s, in Riverdale in The Bronx, where I grew up, something new was added to the day’s rituals. Most of the congregations in Riverdale joined together to hold a “Union Thanksgiving Service,” emphasizing the religious nature of the holiday. The location of the service rotated among congregations and each of the clergy of the participating congregations took part in the non-denominational service. Hundreds attended. It was an example of the unity of the holiday that Lincoln sought in his Thanksgiving Proclamation but was not achieved in his lifetime.
Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation had a number of themes: the bounty that had been bestowed on America; how the severity of the Civil War had not hampered American agricultural and industrial progress; and how signs of America’s prosperity “are the gracious gifts of the Most High God.” He ended by asking Americans to “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.”
And what of today and the future? America is becoming increasingly divided. While we may not be in a shooting war as the Civil War, we are becoming increasingly divided ideologically. Hope and pride in America are being displaced by despair and questioning.
A recent Reuters/Ipsos survey found that 58 percent of Americans don’t identify with what America has become, while 53 percent feel like a “stranger in their own country.”
Will these people be giving thanks this year?
I would like Americans today and in the future to give thanks for America as Irving Berlin did.
God bless America, land that I love,
Stand beside her and guide her
Through the night with a light from above.
From the mountains, to the prairies,
To the oceans white with foam,
God bless America, my home sweet home.
God bless America, my home sweet home.