Today, many of us will be busy in our kitchens or traveling to them preparing to celebrate Thanksgiving with friends and family with an abundance of food, spirited conversation and the background noise of college football games.
It’s a day off from work for most of us — although that respite in the retail world is slowing slipping away. And it’s another national holiday the origins of which have faded amid the increasing din of commercial messages. We think it’s time to take a moment and remember what brought us here.
In our early commonwealth, settlers gave thanks often, whether after a bountiful harvest or were simply days Pilgrims set aside to thank God for providence.
The first civil rather than religious observance of Thanksgiving has been cited as July 30, 1623 when Gov. William Bradford of Plymouth, Mass., declared the celebration after welcoming rains, successful farming and just before the arrival of supply ships — all following a nearly catastrophic drought.
These were hard times and on that occasion when a glimmer of good would appear, they stopped and gave thanks. There was no set day and up through the 18th century many colonies observed days of thanksgiving at different times of the year.
On 1789, following the end of the Revolutionary War, newly inaugurated President George Washington proclaimed the 26th of November of that year as a day when the people of the new nation should thank God “especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.” Many but not all presidents afterwards would declare a day of Thanksgiving.
Then on Oct. 3, 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, President Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a national day of thanks, in hopes it would help heal the wounds of the nation and give “praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
From 1863 until 1939, this national religious holiday was embellished upon by various states with new traditions including church services, high school football rivalries, feasts of turkey and chicken — even pigeon pies — and, especially in New York City, parades.
The commercialization of Thanksgiving started creeping in during the 1920s. Maury Klein, a history professor at the University of Rhode Island, cited that time when the growth of consumerism came with the “political ideology trumpeting that the chief business of the American people is business. The local department store became a grand emporium with … an expanding menu of promotions to attract customers.” In 1924, Macy’s held a Christmas Parade on Thanksgiving with Santa Claus as the final attraction. It was so successful it became a tradition of many Thanksgiving parades around the nation.
Then in 1939, with the country still stagnating in economic depression, President Franklin Roosevelt tried to extend the shopping period by moving Thanksgiving up a week to kick start some economic activity.
That set off confusion – some states refused to follow the calendar shift — and howls of protest with the disruption of things like football games and travel plans. Two years later, Roosevelt relented and, in 1941, the U.S. Congress proclaimed that the fourth Thursday of November would be the official Thanksgiving Day.
While Thanksgiving now is considered the “doorway” to the holiday shopping spree, we should not lose sight of the meaning of Thanksgiving. It is a tradition of giving thanks during this day, a tradition that can cross over to all religions. This is not a time to complain about what we don’t have but rather a time to cherish and be thankful for what we do have.
Whether you have a bountiful table or are being served on a soup line, we all can give thanks for life. Whether rich or poor, we can be thankful that in our nation we have opportunities. Regardless of political leanings or religious beliefs, we can be thankful for our freedoms. Whether alone or surrounded by friends and family, we can be thankful for good memories.
Have a happy Thanksgiving Day.