Thanksgiving. Isn’t that a remembrance of a feast that took place in 1621, when Puritan immigrants and Wampanoag Native Americans gathered together to rejoice in good food and fellowship?
Well…yes and no.
Commemorations of that feast were already popular in the late 17th century. But the national holiday we celebrate owes more to Presidents Washington and Lincoln than to the Pilgrims or the Wampanoag.
President George Washington, at the urging of Congress, commended to state governors a day of thanksgiving in the fall of 1789. This became an annual custom for Washington and his successor, John Adams. Thomas Jefferson, however, was uncomfortable with what he interpreted as the assertion of civil authority over religious matters and did not issue such a proclamation. Thereafter, a nationally-endorsed thanksgiving event vanished until President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 declaration that the fourth Thursday of November should be a national day of thanksgiving.
The Thanksgiving proclamations of Washington and Lincoln included something that has dropped out of our annual celebration. Not only did they urge thanksgiving for successes and good fortune; they also called for reflection upon, and heartfelt remorse for, the nation’s failings.
President Washington urged that we “beseech him [God] to pardon our national and other transgressions.” President Lincoln asked that all Americans, “with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged.”
One might observe that, this Thanksgiving, our nation is again engaged in lamentable civil strife, only some of which (thank God!) is being prosecuted with lethal weapons. And perhaps our contemporary strife is also unavoidable. The battle lines drawn over ideology, power, race, gender, identity, religion, and economic disparity, like the lines that divided the North and South, have their origins in our earliest history. One might say these wars, too, are a product of a certain “perverseness and disobedience.”
An annual feast of thanksgiving is truly a good thing, perhaps an essential one. Our daily preoccupations can blind us to how very much we have to be thankful for.
Those same preoccupations can blind us to our shortcomings, as well. Only when we pause to be thankful, perhaps, can we also realize how much we, as a people, ought to regret, to apologize for, and to commit to resolving in the time ahead.
I’m thankful that I live in a country whose finest leaders appreciated that this nation could be at once great and profoundly imperfect, inspiring and offensive, a champion and a villain. We are an imperfect people, born of imperfect people. We can be blind to our own prejudices, inured to our own cruelty, obsessed with what we believe we deserve.
I’m equally thankful that I live in a country that has chosen as our creed the ideals of equality and liberty…a creed that makes us at once proud of what we have accomplished and, when we realize how far short of their lofty reach we have fallen, inspired to bring them to fulfillment.
Finally, I am thankful for our shared committed to be one nation, though from many peoples, with a common belief and hope in our ability to make tomorrow better than today.