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The unifying origins of the U.S.' holiday

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The prototype for Thanksgiving really did take place in 1621 between the Pilgrims and Native Americans. The feast celebrated the Pilgrims’ first harvest in the New World, but it can’t really be called the beginning of the tradition, since it was never repeated. (Ethnic warfare and typhoid, I imagine, got in the way.)

While American colonists often participated in days of thankful feasting and prayer, the first official Thanksgiving of the new nation didn’t take place until the bitter winter of 1777, when George Washington and his army stopped in Valley Forge, Pa., to observe the holiday. Incidentally, the first official proclamation of Washington’s presidency declared November 26 a national day of “thanksgiving and prayer.”

But Thanksgiving wasn’t codified into a yearly national holiday until 1863, when Sarah J. Hale, “editress” of Lady’s Book, wrote a letter to President Abraham Lincoln on September 28. Hale argued that, for the sake of national unity, President Lincoln should declare a specific date for the traditional feast.

Five days later, Lincoln issued a proclamation. Even in the thick of a devastating civil war, in the wake of the Battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln wrote of a prospering Union, one that “no human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out.” As such, the Union’s blessings “should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and voice by the whole American people.” Lincoln’s Thanksgiving fell exactly one week after his delivery of the Gettysburg Address.

It would not be the last time that Thanksgiving came to the aid of American morale. In 1939, President Roosevelt moved the holiday up one week, to the third Thursday of November, in order to lengthen the Christmas shopping season and boost the economy. That act might not have the same historical resonance as Lincoln’s proclamation of gratitude, but it speaks to Thanksgiving’s power as an American tradition. (In 1941, FDR returned the holiday to the fourth Thursday of November, where it remains.)

I’d be waxing patriotic if I said Americans had “one heart and voice.” But the truth is that Thanksgiving has appeared most prominently in our history during times of strife: the hardships of colonialism, the cold struggle of revolution, the civic blood of civil war, and the poverty at the threshold of world war.

And today we are at war, with weapons overseas and words on home soil. And many of us are impoverished. So let us heed the words of evangelical scholar W.T. Purkiser: “Not what we say about our blessings, but how we use them, is the true measure of our thanksgiving.”