Thanksgiving’s Origins Provide Hope and Guidance for a Fractured Nation

Thanksgiving is unusual in comparison to the other federal holidays. It marks no specific event in history, nor does it commemorate any historic figures or honor those who have served our country.

There are those who trace Thanksgiving back to 1621, when the 50 surviving Pilgrims who had sailed on the Mayflower invited 90 Native Americans to a feast that they had prepared to celebrate the harvest. But there was no annual celebration of Thanksgiving as a formal federal holiday until two and a half centuries later in1863 when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the observance of a day of thanks for a year that had been “filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.”

Lincoln invited “fellow citizens in every part of the United States … to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise.” Still in the midst of the Civil War, he further urged in his proclamation that in addition to gratitude, the American people should engage that day in “humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience.” He concluded with a prayer “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, tranquility and Union.”

What is remarkable about Lincoln’s proclamation is his establishment of a day of thanks in the very midst and throes of a brutal war that ravaged the country and set countrymen at each others’ throats. Even in that ruthless and violent moment, Lincoln paused to reflect on the good that the young country stood for, and prayed for both the end of conflict and the well-being of all.

The question on this Thanksgiving holiday a century and a half later is whether we can pause from our discord and angst for a day to focus on all that we are thankful for as opposed to all that is wrong with our country, our foes, and our world.

There is no question that our culture and our country are fraught with shortcomings and ills. But we are also full of opportunity and hope and promise. We are living in an age and a land of remarkable resources, ingenuity, and potential. The world, with all of its ongoing challenges and pockmarks, is at a phase of unprecedented interconnectedness and evolution.

And while we pause from our anxiety to recognize the propitious conditions that exist around us, we can also look more closely at the people who surround us. When we do so, we will find that they are not as foreign and ugly as we have gotten caught up in believing them to be. Our neighbors are generally kind and caring. They are concerned, as we are; flawed and scarred, as we are; trying to do the right thing, as we are.

Yes, there are the exceptions — the murderers and megalomaniacs, the predators and sociopaths, the corrupt and unrepentant — but for every one of those, there are literally tens of thousands who are well-intentioned and benign. We are accustomed to focusing all of our attention and our ire on the negative — imagine how our lives and our world might change if we focused instead on our commonality and the small acts of daily kindness and humanity that swarm around us unnoticed.

This gratitude and optimism do not negate the pain and injustice that persist, nor do they abdicate the work that must be done. Rather, they enable us to withstand the difficulties and persevere without becoming mired in cynicism or despair.

What Lincoln taught us with the establishment of Thanksgiving in the height of the Civil War, is that our perspective will dictate the outcomes of our reality. Conflict will persist and intensify if we fail to appreciate our shared values and our entwined destiny. Gratitude can emancipate us from the illusion of our separateness and our failure to recognize the ways we need and complement each other.

When we choose to accept and promote the values that Lincoln infused in the celebration of Thanksgiving, to be humble and grateful rather than dominant or superior, then thanks can and will trump angst. Then we will put aside our differences and embrace our diversity, we will go forward in a spirit of mutual respect and mutual benefit , and we will fulfill the dreams of our predecessors who envisioned a land of liberty, security, and opportunity for one and all.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Find a variety of organizations and initiatives that are working to bring America back together at Common Party.



Marc Erlbaum is a filmmaker and social activist.

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