This week marks a time when Americans celebrate a uniquely American holiday—Thanksgiving. No other nation marks this time, and as Americans have become accustomed to having a day set aside as a national time of refreshment and rest, the meaning of the season has often been lost on football (also uniquely American), tons of food—turkey ad nauseum--and the beginning of the holiday shopping season.
Even this year, stores cannot wait til “Black Friday,” so called because the day after Thanksgiving on Thursday is the busiest retail shopping day of the year that brings billions of dollars to stores. In 2012, that was a $59 billion dollar day. This year, shopping starts after dinner on Thursday. Has the nation lost its mooring to the original intent of this time?In 1789, George Washington, a freshly minted first President and Father of a new nation, proclaimed a time to be set aside for all Americans to honor God in a time to give thanks for the blessings bestowed on a country that was brand new, and that had just come through almost a decade of war with its former parent nation, Great Britain. Still searching for a new identity as the United States of America, the population of three million new citizens were looking for a cohesive way to make it in the world.
According to The Heritage Organization, following a resolution of Congress, President George Washington proclaimed Thursday the 26th of November 1789 a day of “public thanksgiving and prayer” devoted to “the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.” Reflecting American religious practice, Presidents and Congresses from the beginning of the republic have from time to time designated days of fasting and thanksgiving (the Thanksgiving holiday we continue to celebrate in November was established by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and made into law by Congress in 1941).
In setting aside a day for Thanksgiving, Washington established a non-sectarian tone for these devotions and stressed political, moral, and intellectual blessings that make self-government possible, in addition to personal and national repentance. Although the First Amendment prevents Congress from establishing a religion or prohibiting its free exercise, Presidents, as well as Congress, have always recognized the American regard for sacred practices and beliefs.
Thus, throughout American history, Presidents have offered non-sectarian prayers for the victory of the military and in the wake of catastrophes. Transcending passionate quarrels over the proper role of religion in politics, the Thanksgiving Proclamation reminds us how natural their relationship has been. While church and state are separate, religion and politics, in their American refinement, prop each other up. Here is the proclamation:
“By the President of the United States of America, a Proclamation.
Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and—Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me “to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:”
Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favor, able interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.
And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other trangressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally, to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.
Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.
As you go about your annual celebration of this season, and gather with family and friends, remember to eat and drink in moderation. Stay away from harmful activities, and share the blessings of the holiday with others not so fortunate as you. Here are a few thoughts: instead of gorging on several plates of turkey, dressing, and pumpkin pie until you pass out, volunteer on Thanksgiving Day at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen to feed the down and out. Donate food to a charitable organization to help those who are unable to buy food. Go to your local church or synagogue for services, and ask God to provide safety and protection to the first responders—firemen, police, and our military—as they serve to keep the nation safe.
Give thanks for both the tangible and intangible rewards you enjoy each day. Teach your children and grandchildren the true meaning of Thanksgiving and why it is such an important occasion. Take time to reflect on your blessings, and why you are thankful. Give thanks to God for what He has provided no matter how much or how little you have. Don’t take it for granted. After all, you could be living in a country that is totally clueless about this time of year. What a shame that they miss all the blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Until next time.