A Thanksgiving Day as such is not unique to the United States. Celebrations of gratitude for the harvest at the end of the growing season appear in many times and places. They are found in Asia, Africa, Europe and elsewhere in the Americas. In the Hebrew Bible (aka the Old Testament) the last of the three great festivals, Sukkot, has such themes. Here's a little something on the US Thanksgiving, which has, or had, a different focus than any of those.
In 1789, 228 years ago this year (2017), President George Washington proclaimed a national Day of Thanksgiving in the United States for that year. Why for 1789? Because that is the year in which provisional independent government ended and a permanent federal government took effect under a document ratified by all the states. That document was called a Frame of Government at the time but is now known as the Constitution. The thanksgiving was to God as variously understood for the successful conclusion of the war for independence and the establishment of a permanent government.
74 years later, or 154 years ago, in 1863, as the country was in a civil war, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Day of Thanksgiving for that year. The thanksgiving was to God that even in the midst of a civil war no foreign wars had emerged, life had otherwise gone on and an end to the conflict was in sight. This became the model for an annual thanksgiving day.
There is not one thing about Pilgrims or turkeys in either of those proclamations. Nothing about "family" and big meals, or, watching sports or buying stuff for Christmas, er, the holidays, either. So how did this US Thanksgiving holiday come about anyway? Here's the story.
The "first" Thanksgiving -- all three of them.
Guess what! There were two "first" Thanksgivings before the "first" Thanksgiving in 1621 at Plymouth, Massachusetts!
The second "first" Thanksgiving before the "first" Thanksgiving was two years earlier. On 4 December 1619, English settlers arrived at Berkeley Hundred, roughly 20 miles up the James River from Jamestown, the first permanent settlement, begun 14 May 1607. The ship's captain, John Woodleaf, led a service of thanksgiving and the settlement charter directed the date to be observed thereafter. Thereafter lasted until 1622 when the native population, not so thankful for their arrival, forced their retreat to Jamestown.
The first "first" Thanksgiving before the "first" Thanksgiving was 54 years earlier. Spanish settlers celebrated thanksgiving for their safe arrival 8 September 1565 at what is now St Augustine, Florida. This the first recorded thanksgiving in America, but, as this was Spaniards in a Spanish colony, La Florida, which didn't pass to English control until 1763 or become a state until 1845, it doesn't get much airplay among Anglos.
Thanksgivings were held at various times and places in the English colonies, after the harvest, but as days of prayer, not eating! The provisional Continental Congress proclaimed the first national thanksgiving, which was Thursday 18 December 1777, so I guess that's some sort of "first" too although the United States as constituted (literally) now didn't exist until 1789.
The United States Day of Thanksgiving.
On 25 September 1789, toward the close of the first session ever of the United States Congress, Representative Elias Boudinot of New Jersey (no party designation, he didn't want one) proposed that Congress petition the President to declare a day of thanksgiving for the formation of a permanent government. There was some opposition, most notably from Representative Thomas Tudor Tucker of South Carolina, of the Anti-Administration party, an early precursor of the present Democratic Party. They had opposed the Constitution as creating too strong a federal government and opposed Hamilton and the Federalists. Tucker thought that maybe more time should pass to see if it really worked all that well, that the President should not have such power, that thanksgivings are a foreign custom, and that the idea was too religious. It passed handily, citing the precedent of the Continental Congress, and a joint delegation of the Senate and House approached the President who quickly agreed.
The first national day of Thanksgiving in the United States as such was proclaimed by President Washington on 3 October 1789 for Thursday 26 November 1789. Washington took care to respect the states, giving the proclamation to the various state governors, newspapers published it, and the day was, to use a phrase not current then, a smash hit. Churches took collections for the poor at their services, and Washington himself donated $25 at the one he attended in New York, the capital then. Those are 1789 dollars; $25 in 1789, adjusted for inflation, is about $661 now.
Presidents and governors proclaimed thanksgivings off and on after that. Then, starting with President Lincoln's designation on 3 October 1863 of the last Thursday of November that year as a day of national thanksgiving, for the next 76 years each subsequent president had year by year designated the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day. Until FDR.
In 1939 the last Thursday in November would be the 30th, and President Roosevelt was persuaded by business leaders that a longer Christmas shopping season would help the economy out of the Depression with more sales. Gotta remember, once upon a time but not so long ago it was considered inappropriate to start the Christmas season before Thanksgiving. So, he declared Thanksgiving the next to last Thursday in November that year.
The new Thanksgiving was widely derided as "Franksgiving" -- Roosevelt's first name being Franklin -- and had no force of law, some states observing the new "Democrat" Thanksgiving and some the old "Republican" Thanksgiving. A Commerce Department report in 1941 found no significant difference in sales from the change, but, nonetheless, Congress passed a law designating the fourth Thursday in November, which some years is the last and some the next to last Thursday, as Thanksgiving Day every year. 1942 was the first Thanksgiving under the current law, by which time we were not in the middle of a civil war but the second of two world wars.
So the march to "Black Friday" began with a move to increase store sales on the day after Thanksgiving by moving Thanksgiving itself, a logical choice since many businesses gave the day after off too and then there's a week-end. The name "Black Friday" originated in Philadelphia somewhere in the 1950s to describe the pandemonium of all the shoppers, and by the 1970s the term was in general use in the US. Stores would open earlier than usual, like around 0600. Then, as the 21st Century came, with a worsening economy it crept earlier by an hour or two to capture even more sales. In 2011 major retailers opened at midnight, the first second of Friday, in 2012 some began opening Thanksgiving night and by 2014 it was extended into Thanksgiving afternoon.
Who knows, before too long maybe it'll be just Black Thanksgiving. The buying spree now begins with "sneak" previews as November begins, and the buying spree has eclipsed both the original intent of Thanksgiving and also the family, big meal, watch football version of Thanksgiving.
You know what, Washington had no more to say about sales, Christmas, Christmas sales, food or football than he did about Pilgrims and turkeys regarding Thanksgiving, when "Washington" referred to a man and not a city. Neither did President Lincoln, whose example, as to a proclamation anyway, had been followed since. Below are the original proclamations of the first United States Thanksgiving Day by President George Washington in 1789 and the 1863 proclamation by President Lincoln that was followed annually until modified for commercialism under FDR in 1939. Amazing stuff. Beautiful stuff. Our stuff.
President Washington's Proclamation of the First U.S. Thanksgiving.
Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor, and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee 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 signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.
Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be. That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks, for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation, for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war, for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed, for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.
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, to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shown kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord. To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and Us, and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.
Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789
President Lincoln's Proclamation of Thanksgiving 1863.
By the President of the United States of America.
A Proclamation. 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 unequaled 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 has 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 consiousness 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 one 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 Unites States the Eighty-eighth.
By the President: Abraham Lincoln
William H. Seward, Secretary of State
While yes we don't find food and sports and shopping frenzies spoken of in those proclamations, we also don't find now among our stuff the things of which Washington did speak. Such as:
- a duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of, to be grateful for the benefits of, and humbly to implore the protection of, Almighty God;
- a duty to observe a day of public thanksgiving and prayer for his favour, particularly in being able to form our kind of government;
- service of a great and glorious Being who is the beneficent Author of all good;
- joining in prayers to the great Ruler and Lord Of Nations to pardon our wrongs, to enable us to perform our duties, to make our government a blessing of wise, just and constitutional law, to guide all Sovereigns and Nations in good government, to promote true religion and virtue, to increase science and such prosperity as he knows best among all mankind.
And where now among our stuff does one find that of which Lincoln spoke? Such as:
- the fruits of our efforts being due not to ourselves but to God whose gifts they are, who though he punishes us for our sins remembers mercy too;
- that wherever we are, we offer praise and thanksgiving to our beneficient Father who dwelleth in the Heavens;
- that as we do, we also, with penitence for our perverseness and disobedience, ask the intervention of his Almighty Hand to heal the wounds we have caused ourselves, when it is consistent with His purposes.
Where do you find this sort of stuff now? You don't. Even though this is what Thanksgiving is meant to be. And it's characteristic of our other founding stuff. And not as a matter of Lutheran belief, or any other specific belief as no religion is specified, but as just being American, our stuff. Yet one does not find such talk in the public discourse now.
Instead, one finds:
- those who think such talk has no place in our stuff, and have pretty well succeeded in removing all such talk from our stuff, as part of being "politically correct" speech and therefore presumably thought control, which was once dreaded for a dystopian future but is now ok;
- those who think this is a specifically Christian nation though no such mention is made, and try to restore things that were never there, as well as those who see that there is nothing specifically Christian about Thanksgiving and thus deride it as American "civic religion".
Each equally in their different ways misses what our stuff is all about. Just as do those who make Thanksgiving about a big family meal, football on TV, and heading to the stores to buy stuff for Christmas, er, "holiday", presents.
May we find something of Presidents Washington and Lincoln in our national celebration this year as we did at the first one in 1789, and as we did at what became the first annual national one in 1863.
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