Thanksgiving: Thankful for a History of Differences

November 22, 2017

Thanksgiving? Among the most rarified of holidays. Unencumbered, as it is, by issues of religion or commercialism. A time during which men and women, regardless of race, religion or socioeconomic stead, can express gratitude for that with which they've been blessed.
The idea of a holiday to give thanks for our bounties arose in the early 17th century, long before these United States were more than a gleam in the Founding Fathers' eyes. Scholars have traced such observances to Florida, Virginia, New England, and Canada. It wasn't always on a Thursday, and it wasn't always in November.
The original Thanksgiving dinner occurred in 1621, within the initial autumn the Mayflower's Pilgrims laid up their stores for the winter. William Bradford and Edward Winslow left behind written evidence of a three-day feast shared by the immigrants and some 90 Wampanoag Indians accompanied by "their greatest king Massasoit." There were many turkeys eaten. Along with venison. As the Wampanoag brought five deer they had killed.

The pilgrims and the Wampanoags enjoyed themselves so much that annual observances took hold. And before long, the government got involved. Rare as it is to begin such a tradition. But more than happy to ratify it. The first such ratification occurred on June 20, 1676, when the governing council of Charlestown, Massachusetts, proclaimed June 29 as a day of thanksgiving.
Of course, the town council's dinner ran well over budget. A deficit that likely still exists some 341 years later.
Now, by the time America was founded, Thanksgiving had been established. In fact, the Continental Congress extolled George Washington's victory over the British at Saratoga with a November 1, 1777 proclamation setting aside December 18th as a day of thanksgiving. Establishing the date as a Veterans Day and Thanksgiving rolled into one. With the obligatory sectarian nod to "God, through the merits of Jesus Christ" thrown in for good measure.
Leaving everyone happy. And General Washington approved. Which explains why, after becoming president, GW authored a similar proclamation for "a day of public thanksgiving and prayer" to be celebrated on October 3.
December. October. How did Thanksgiving Day end up in November?
John Adams, who followed Washington into office, followed suit regarding a day of thanksgiving. But politics intervened. As Adams' erstwhile rival, Thomas Jefferson, balked at the idea. Writing in an 1808 letter to the Rev. Samuel Miller: "I consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from meddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises."
Even then, the secular and the religious were at odds. I guess, as with so much of Thanksgiving, some traditions carry on.
Interestingly, John Quincy Adams (the younger) eventually sided with Jefferson, and not his father. Likewise, James Madison sided with George Washington and not Jefferson, his good friend and mentor. Madison was the last president until the Civil War to sign a thanksgiving proclamation. But Jefferson had signed such a proclamation as governor of Virginia, and here was a nice historic compromise: Governors -- especially in the New England states -- issued the proclamations each year, thus helping to keep the tradition alive.
Though I believe they began to warily eye Christmas trees. School prayer. And the Second Amendment. But such is fodder for future missives.
Which brings us, as conversations involving the intersection of American tradition and politics invariably do, to Abraham Lincoln. For it was on October 3rd that Lincoln honored the Union victory at Gettysburg by proclaiming an official Thanksgiving holiday on November 26, 1863. Lincoln added that the last Thursday of every November would thereafter be designated as Thanksgiving Day.
Voila!
You'd think that would be the end of it. But Franklin Roosevelt had already ignored George Washington's two-term precedent. And so began thinking that he could improve upon Lincoln, as well. Though FDR had his reasons. And even the 1930s, despite the innocence with which we imbue them, were riddled with commercial practicalities.
It just so happened that November of 1939 included five Thursdays. With the final Thursday falling on November 30th. Leaving merchants to grouse that too little time was left for Christmas shopping. And what about Black Friday(s)?
Still wrestling with the Great Depression after some seven years in office, FDR thus proclaimed November 23, 1939 to be Thanksgiving Day. Which brought consternation. As calendars and school schedules had already been printed. A hefty undertaking, this being "pre-Kinkos."
About half the states followed FDR's lead. The other half did not. Colorado and Texas used both days. But Roosevelt was stubborn. And in 1940, he announced the third Thursday of the month would be Thanksgiving. Again, the states split on whether to abide.
Now, Milton Friedman once said that if you put the government in charge of the Sahara Desert, there'd be a sand shortage within five years. Likewise, when the government got involved in a holiday that revolved around giving thanks, it became a thankless mess.
George Washington and Abe Lincoln had envisioned the holiday as a day to bring people together. Which occurred as early as 1621. But now, some 300 years later, some American families couldn't share the feast because they had different days off from work.
Then came the war. Leaving America with bigger fish to fry. And on December 26, 1941, Congress passed a law declaring that Thanksgiving would occur every year on the fourth Thursday of November. A wise compromise between the greatest Republican president and the greatest Democratic president.
So proving that political compromise, though rare, does exist. Even if its usually teased out under great duress.
And like WWII, which sealed Thanksgiving's ratification, Americans were attacked in this recent generation, too. And Congress and the president joined hands for a while then, as well. And though we wish such political detente could last longer, we don't profess to believe in unicorns.
And yet, should our political differences really separate us? Should not they be more like our preferences in team sports? Differentiators, yes. But nothing that we can live with.
Hurricanes Maria. Harvey. And Irma. The Mandalay Bay tragedy in Vegas. People starving in once-rich Venezuela. Lunatic dictators in North Korea. Neo Nazis. Antifa Thugs. Harvey Weinstein. Russian Collusion. Grand juries. Senate subcommittees. And so on and so forth.
And yet, as JFK eruditely pronounced, the only thing to fear is fear itself. And what have we to really fear?
This morning, we woke in the freest, wealthiest and greatest of all nations on God's green earth. Where we can worship, curse, protest, castigate, speak, write and pretty much do that which we please. Most anytime and anywhere.
So what of substance have we to truly complain about?
God bless you. Democrats and Republicans. Young and old. Rich and poor. Wise and, well, less so. For regardless of our differences, let us not forget that those differences are our birthrights. Our collective blessings. And for all of them, and all of you, I remain so very thankful.
Happy Thanksgiving.\
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