It has been said, “the history of Thanksgiving began when Pilgrims and Native Americans gathered together to celebrate a successful harvest. The first Thanksgiving was held in the fall of 1621 and was a three-day feast. The Pilgrims were joined by approximately 90 of the local Wampanoag tribe, including Chief Massasoit, in celebration. They ate fowl and deer for certain and most likely also ate berries, fish, clams, plums, and boiled pumpkin. Though the current holiday of Thanksgiving was based on the 1621 feast, it did not immediately become an annual celebration or holiday. Sporadic days of Thanksgiving followed, usually declared locally to give thanks for a specific event such as the end of a drought, victory in a specific battle, or after a harvest. It wasn’t until October 1777 that all 13 colonies celebrated a day of Thanksgiving. The very first national day of Thanksgiving was held in 1789, when President George Washington proclaimed Thursday, November 26 to be ‘a day of public thanksgiving and prayer,’ to especially give thanks for the opportunity to form a new nation and the establishment of a new constitution. Yet even after a national day of Thanksgiving was declared in 1789, Thanksgiving was not an annual celebration.”
It wasn’t until Abraham Lincoln that Thanksgiving Day was officially proclaimed and observed as a national holiday. What is beautiful about Lincoln’s proclamation are the many references to God, blessings, mercy, humility, patience, as well as the recognition of our sinful ways, ingratitude and need for repentance. I give you the proclamation in full so that you may obtain the full flavor of his spirit as he writes. I also took the liberty to put in bold print statements that reference our Father in Heaven.
Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation
Washington, DC—October 3, 1863
The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart, which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.
In the midst of a civil war unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict, while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well as the iron and coal as of our precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore.
excerpted from an article about the History of Thanksgiving at About.comPopulation has steadily increased notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings they do also, 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, and fervently implore the imposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the divine purpose, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union. In testimony whereof I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.”
Lincoln does not hold back enumerating the progress of the United States during his time. He speaks of the expansion of lands, how the mines brought forth iron, coal and precious metals. The population was growing, peace was being preserved with other nations, the laws were being obeyed and respected and harmony prevailed. It’s obvious that he was using this proclamation to bring to the awareness of the people the many things that they ought to be grateful for.
He also does not refrain from reminding the people from where all these good gifts come. He states, “bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come.” They are “the gracious gifts of the Most High God.” How amazing it is to read such words nearly 150 years later! The focus of his proclamation is on “the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.” How beautiful that one of our presidents of the United States held such a view of life and country. At the same time, how sad that we have drifted so far from such a view on the national level and even in our own homes.
It is unfortunate, but secularism would have its way just a few decades later. “For 75 years after Lincoln issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation, succeeding presidents honored the tradition and annually issued their own Thanksgiving Proclamation, declaring the last Thursday in November as the day of Thanksgiving. However, in 1939, the last Thursday of November was going to be November 30th. Retailers complained to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that this only left 24 shopping days to Christmas and begged him to push Thanksgiving just one week earlier. It was determined that most people do their Christmas shopping after Thanksgiving and retailers hoped that with an extra week of shopping, people would buy more. So when FDR announced his Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1939, he declared the date of Thanksgiving to be Thursday, November 23, the second-to-last Thursday of the month. Political opponents of FDR and many others questioned the president’s right to change the holiday and stressed the breaking of precedent and disregard for tradition. Many believed that changing a cherished holiday just to appease businesses was not a sufficient reason. Atlantic City’s mayor derogatorily called November 23 as “Franksgiving.”
A day proclaimed to give praise and thanks to God became an issue of concern for moneymakers, who eventually got their way. The retailers came to embrace the name of the day after Thanksgiving, which truly sheds light on the matter, as “Black Friday”. “The day’s name originated in Philadelphia, where it originally was used to describe the heavy and disruptive pedestrian and vehicle traffic which would occur on the day after Thanksgiving. Use of the term started before 1961 and began to see broader use outside Philadelphia around 1975. Later an alternative explanation began to be offered: that “Black Friday” indicates the point at which retailers begin to turn a profit, or are “in the black”. If that weren’t bad enough, “some people have stopped calling Thanksgiving “Thanksgiving,” and now refer to it as “Gray Thursday. This is probably because stores are starting sales earlier and earlier. Research showed that most customers would rather stay up late to go shop rather than wake up early.”
I feel that it is extremely important as Orthodox Christians to always remember the mercy, love and goodness of our Father in Heaven, who supplies our every need. He grants us forgiveness of our sins, eternal life and His precious Body and Blood through the Eucharist, “Thanksgiving.” I pray that we will all take to heart the beautiful words of our former president, Abraham Lincoln, and continually call to mind all that we have been blessed with in this life and give thanks to our Lord and God for all that He has done and continues to do for us.
With love in Christ, Fr. Timothy