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SHREWSBURY, Massachusetts – The story we have all heard about Thanksgiving reads just like a picture story. The Indians and Pilgrims, sitting together at their table in Plymouth, in 1621, sharing corn, turkey and a host of other goods. As quaint as the story sounds, it is perhaps, as apocryphal as that of Paul Reveres infamous “The British are Coming” quote. In reality, there is evidence that celebrations referred to as “Thanksgiving” were celebrated as early as the mid 1500′s in St. Augustine, Florida and Newfoundland, Canada, and in the earlier 1600′s in the Netherlands…a place quite familiar to the Pilgrims.
In fact while we would like to trace the holiday back to Plymouth, the idea of a true “National Thanksgiving” didn’t appear until over 200 years later, in a national proclamation by none other than Abraham Lincoln. As he agonized over the losses of hundreds of thousands of men on both sides of the war, but felt that the turning point had been passed and that the war would soon be over, he prepared for his visit a few weeks later to a place called Gettysburg, where he had been invited to “deliver a few brief remarks.”
Lincoln had, as early as 1861, issued Executive orders that certain government departments be closed at the local level for a day of giving thanks, but that’s as far as the idea had ever gotten, until a 74 year old women named Sarah Hale wrote the president a letter. In this memo, dated September 28th, 1863, she urged the President to have the “day of Thanksgiving” made a National Holiday. She explained, “You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day.” She continued, “It now needs National recognition and autoritative fixation, only, to become permanently an American custom and institution.” To the surprise of many, Mrs. Hale included, Lincoln responded immediately, issuing a proclamation a few days later proclaiming that the last Thursday of November, be set aside as a day of National Thanksgiving.
By the President of the United States of America.
“The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.
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 voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.”
In 1941, President Roosevelt, in an effort to boost the economy, likely by increasing the length of the Christmas shopping season, signed a bill into law moving the date to the “fourth Thursday” of November, even if it wasn’t the “last” Thursday.
So, we can most certainly continue the long standing tradition of thinking the the Wamanoags and the Pilgrims had the foresight to envision a whole new holiday, complete with the accompanying Black Friday, holiday sales galore, and the allure of a deep-fried turkey, but let’s certainly give equal credit to the Dutch, the Canadians, the Spanish of St Augustine, and of course our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln.