Guest Editorial: Sense of gratitude is critical
When Americans think about the history behind our celebration of Thanksgiving, we typically leap back to the days pilgrims, Plymouth Rock and the assistance that European settlers received from natives in surviving their first winter in the new land.
That tale of goodwill and friendship fits well with our perception of what the holiday has become – a day to gather with friends and family for an annual feast while we give thanks for our many blessings. But the origins of our nation’s first official Thanksgiving Day are much bloodier.
The idea of an annual Thanksgiving holiday had been kicking around for quite some time. In 1789, George Washington called for a “day of public thanksgiving and prayer,” a proposal that met with enthusiastic acceptance from Congress. But the idea of an annual celebration did not catch on.
Later presidents, including Thomas Jefferson, worried that an official holiday expressing gratitude to a higher power would be a violation of the separation of church and state, historians said, and the idea languished.
It took one of the bloodiest battles in our nation’s history to reverse that trend. Over three days of fierce fighting in July 1863, as many as 51,000 soldiers from the Union and Confederate armies were killed, wounded or captured during the Battle of Gettysburg.
President Abraham Lincoln declared two separate Thanksgiving celebrations in 1863 – the first in August to celebrate the Union victory at Gettysburg, the second in November. It was the later celebration that would become our national holiday.
In proclaiming the holiday, Secretary of State William Seward made no attempt to alleviate the concerns of Jefferson and others. The holiday was to be ” a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens,” the official proclamation read.
“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,” the proclamation said.
The holiday has become a much more secular event in recent years. The turkey feast is squeezed in between NFL games. And by evening, thoughts turn to bargain busters and sales extravaganzas. The rampant commercialism of Black Friday can no longer be contained to a single day and now encroaches on this once-solemn observance.
Such change was likely inevitable. But it does not change the nature of the holiday.
The United States today is very different than it was in Lincoln’s day. We have grown into a nation of immense wealth and power. Many of our other national holidays are a celebration of that national condition.
Thanksgiving is the one day we show gratitude. And whether that is done through worship or merely private reflection, it is critical that we maintain the sense of gratitude that this day is all about.
El Paso Times, Nov. 26