Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012 | 2 a.m.
America’s modern celebration of Thanksgiving is marked by turkey, pies and football. A long weekend for many people, it opens the holiday season with the Macy’s parade in New York and the crush of sales for Christmas shoppers.
Of course, the day wouldn’t be complete without obligatory references to the Pilgrims, who have taken on a cartoonish quality with buckled shoes and big hats.
The idea of giving thanks can easily get pushed aside today, and that is unfortunate.
The country’s history has been steeped in gratitude, starting with the Pilgrims, who came to the land in search of a place to worship freely and faced significant hardship. Their meal with the native Indians nearly 400 years ago, traditionally seen as the first “thanksgiving” meal, was a genuine moment of giving thanks.
The country’s leaders have expressed gratitude throughout the years, even in difficult times.
In 1777, the Continental Congress issued a proclamation setting aside a “solemn” day of thanksgiving to God for what success the country was having in the Revolutionary War. And in 1863, during the bloody Civil War, Abraham Lincoln called for the last Thursday in November to be a day of thanksgiving, with a moving proclamation that counted the nation’s blessings.
With today’s modern conveniences and for our overall strength as a nation, there is plenty for Americans to give thanks. However, after a particularly heated election and a difficult period of economic pain, the country still shows bitter signs of division over issues including the economy, the social safety net and immigration.
So today it’s worth noting that in declaring a day of thanksgiving, presidents have found common themes throughout the years beyond giving thanks, including unity and charity, which have been hallmarks of the American spirit.
In 1795, President George Washington called on people to gather and give thanks to the “Great Ruler of Nations” for America’s success and to ask “the kind Author of these blessings ... to render this country more and more a safe and propitious asylum for the unfortunate of other countries ... and finally, to impart all the blessings we possess, or ask for ourselves, to the whole family of mankind.”
In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt called on Americans to “set our faces resolutely against evil, and with broad charity, with kindliness and good-will toward all men, but with unflinching determination to smite down wrong, strive with all the strength that is given us for righteousness in public and in private life.”
In 1959, President Dwight Eisenhower wrote:
“As a token of our gratitude for God’s gracious gift of abundance, let us share generously with those less fortunate than we at home and abroad. Let us at this season of thanksgiving perform deeds of thanksgiving; and, throughout the year, let us fulfill those obligations of citizenship and humanity which spring from grateful hearts.”
In 1981, President Ronald Reagan said Thanksgiving “has become a day when Americans extend a helping hand to the less fortunate. Long before there was a government welfare program, this spirit of voluntary giving was ingrained in the American character. Americans have always understood that, truly, one must give in order to receive. This should be a day of giving as well as a day of thanks.”
This year, President Barack Obama wrote:
“On Thanksgiving Day, individuals from all walks of life come together to celebrate this most American tradition, grateful for the blessings of family, community, and country. Let us spend this day by lifting up those we love, mindful of the grace bestowed upon us by God and by all who have made our lives richer with their presence.”
Indeed. We live in a nation that has been blessed with freedom and prosperity. Today, as we celebrate, let us all be thankful for what we all have as Americans: a rich history, a strong country and a bright future.