I love Thanksgiving. One of my favorite parts about the holiday is hosting the big feast. There’s nothing better to me than a table full of food and surrounded by family (or those adopted as family for the day).
Despite my love of the holiday, I know Thanksgiving has a lot of pressure. It may be one day out of the year, but on it, we pack a momentous dinner, a myriad of family dynamics, and the start of the Christmas season. Perhaps that is why there is so much fuss to push Christmas off until we’ve given Thanksgiving its due. And yet, have we actually remembered what Thanksgiving is all about?
In case you’ve forgotten your U.S. History class, the first winter after the Mayflower landed in what is now Massachusetts was a deadly one. Many of the men, women, and children seeking a new life died from the harsh conditions. The following spring, however, they were introduced to Tisquantum, also known as Squanto, a local man who had been captured, made a slave, and managed to return only to find his community had been decimated by disease. Despite that experience, Squanto taught the newcomers to his home how to farm the land and gather the resources needed to survive. The passengers of the Mayflower were so grateful for the abundance they experienced thanks to their neighbors’ help, they hosted a celebration, with those neighbors, for their plentiful harvest. (source)
Not every year saw such bounty for the newcomers. Nor did the relationship between them and the established communities hold such peace. It was quite the opposite as the newcomers asserted their way of life and took the lands of the native peoples. Yet, the anomaly of those first feast days is what we celebrate today.
Which begs the question: if that is the feast we praise, do we actually celebrate it the way they did? Do we look back at our abundance and thank God for the provision we have received? Do we invite the people who have helped us reach our successes to join us in our gratitude? Do we extend welcome to the community around us despite the evident differences in our skin color, religion, and way of life?
A National Day of Thanksgiving
Continuing in our exploration of Thanksgiving’s history, we discover that its journey to become a national holiday is wrapped up, not in peace, but in war. As the War for Independence drew to a close, George Washington issued the United States’ first Thanksgiving Proclamation, declaring a day of thanks for the successful separation from England and for the new country they desired to create. (source)
Later presidents also issued similar proclamations and New York became the first state to make it an annual tradition. However, it was author Sarah Josepha Hale who championed the idea of a permanent National Day of Thanksgiving. It wasn’t until the Battle of Gettysburg that then president Abraham Lincoln agreed to the idea. (source)
He may be the one who set the annual date to be the last Thursday in November, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to move Thanksgiving Day up a week to give more time for holiday shopping during the Great Depression as a way to stimulate the economy. People revolted against the idea and on the cusp of the United States entering World War II, just after the devastation at Pearl Harbor, FDR signed a bill returning the celebration to the date we observe today. (source)
Once again, it is out of death and struggle that thanksgiving comes. First it came as gratitude for an abundance that would protect against a second winter of starvation. But as the concept grew within the United States, it came after war. War against country, against family, against warring ideals. Incredible suffering and loss. Economic depression that devastated the nation. Yet, it was because of these times that people were were called to be thankful. (source)
Even Sarah Hale, considered the Mother of Thanksgiving and who experienced great success as a writer and editor and used that platform to lobby for a national day of thanksgiving, came up with the concept around the time of her husband’s death. It was twenty years after her loss when she began her quest to see the idea of a national thanksgiving holiday come to fruition, yet it took another seventeen years for Abraham Lincoln to set an official holiday. (source)
This is the holiday we celebrate the fourth Thursday in November. One that grew out of great loss. It makes me ask if we consider why we celebrate the holdiay. Is it because we must? Or do we see it as an opportunity to give thanks with people we love (and those so different from us)?
Are you one who has experienced loss, trial, or difficulty this year? Despite that, can you find a nugget for which to be thankful? Or do you have an ability to share with a needy person just as Squanto did? Or perhaps you have had great abundance. Are you willing to share that bounty with everyone who helped you achieve it? Including those who are so different from you?
Christmas vs. Thanksgiving
Those questions aside, what about the challenge of Christmas edging into Thanksgiving? I alluded to several of these thoughts earlier, but the history of Thanksgiving causes me to ask why Christmas and Thanksgiving have to be mutually exclusive? Shouldn’t our giving of gifts, our celebration of the birth of Emmanuel (God with Us), come out of a spirit of thanksgiving? Shouldn’t the concept of death we grapple with during Halloween be the launching point to our gratitude and out of that gratitude shouldn’t giving come? Isn’t that where the history of Thanksgiving comes from?
Perhaps the commercial side of Christmas is what trips us up. This is not a new problem. As I said earlier, FDR wanted to extend the Christmas shopping season, hoping to stimulate the economy. But people didn’t want more shopping days. They liked the tradition as it was. So FDR returned the holiday to it’s original date.
Another aspect to consider is that Thanksgiving is only celebrated on the 4th Thursday of November in the United States. Other countries and communities have other ways of celebrating both the giving of thanks (for example, Canadian Thanksgiving was on October 14th this year) and the celebration of Christmas (for example, in Russia, New Years is the big holiday, not Christmas and since the calendar is different there than in the U.S., Christmas is actually January 7). So the dilemma of Christmas overtaking Christmas is primarily a concern only found in the United States.
Making the Most of Thanksgiving
With this reminder of the history of Thanksgiving, where does that leave us? The knowledge is nice and all, but this blog is about the practical ways to use creativity to being about self-care. Perhaps adjusting our perspective toward one of gratitude instead of obligation would help turn the holiday from a list of musts to a day of thanks.
If indeed that can help, perhaps this Thanksgiving as the mashed potatoes cool and turkey refuses to cook, as tensions flare between relatives or you struggle to find any joy in the day, try to remember that it is out of all these negative things that thanksgiving comes. Conversely, if the meal comes together perfectly and your relatives get along famously, revel in your abundance and invite others to share in that spirit of thanksgiving with you.
Perhaps in this way we can spread the spirit of Thanksgiving shown during that second winter after the Mayflower landed on the east coast. And so, my wish for you is that Thanksgiving will be a doorway into giving, the preparation we need for the Christmas Season.