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COMMENTARY – The Lessons of Thanksgiving

The first Thanksgiving

The first Thanksgiving

Given the divisiveness sowed by this year’s approaching presidential election, it may be beneficial to contemplate another occurrence this month — Thanksgiving, and several historical moments in its evolution as a national holiday.

The small gathering of Pilgrims in Plymouth, who celebrated and gave thanks in the fall of 1621 for their bountiful harvest, is often cited by historians as the origin of the Thanksgiving holiday. Less than half of the 102 Pilgrims, arriving on the Mayflower in December of the preceding year at Plymouth Rock, had survived the terrible winter. The surviving band of immigrants to their new land feasted for three days along with 91 native Americans. It has been said that without the welcome and help of the natives, “Indians” as we may know them, the remaining colonists in what is now Massachusetts, newcomers to this land, would not have survived that first winter.

Even for this event, along with the fowl caught by the colonists, the Indians offered provisions for the feast, including five deer killed by their huntsmen. While other colonies, such as one in Jamestown, Virginia, did have conflicts with the natives, Plymouth could serve as an example of how people already living in a land might embrace those seeking respite upon landing on its shores.

As an unofficial festival, Thanksgiving was celebrated at different times by the various colonies until George Washington, in 1789, proclaimed November 27 of that year, a national day of thanksgiving. However, even after that, the states celebrated it on different days. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln directed the nation “to observe the last Thursday in November as a day of Thanksgiving…” for that year, but it was not designated an annual national holiday. Finally, in 1941, Congress, under President Franklin Roosevelt, established its annual celebration on the fourth Thursday in November.

Going back to George Washington, it is noteworthy to recall parts of his proclamation in which he wrote that Congress,”…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.”

Within the proclamation, Washington added, “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 transgressions; 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.”

Following this month’s voting, we should all hope that those words offer guidance to every citizen no matter whom he or she supported in the presidential election. And given the work and sacrifices so many have made to maintain our liberties, all eligible citizens surely should exercise their right to vote.

Robert Kimmel
Chairman, Editorial Board

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