Thanksgiving, it seems, has almost become a forgotten holiday, a mere speed bump on the “holiday” shopping highway. And that’s a shame, because Thanksgiving is one of the truly beautiful American celebrations.
It’s particularly beautiful because its defining idea is to give thanks to God even when it seems like blessings may be hard to find. That’s been the nature of its story – throughout our history, days of thanksgiving have often been observed in our darkest hours, when the present felt bleak and the future looked frightening and uncertain.
Think back to that first Thanksgiving in 1621, the one we all learned about in grade school. The Pilgrims had survived their first brutal year in the new land, but just barely. More than half their original group had perished, either on the ocean crossing or in the harsh winter that greeted them soon after landing in Plymouth.
When the Pilgrims celebrated their first harvest in the New World they were grateful for the bounty that would see them through the next winter, but their future on this alien distant shore was far from assured. Those were, indeed, anxious times, and yet they gave thanks. And there weren’t even any Black Friday sales to help them celebrate.
More than 150 years after that first Thanksgiving, in 1777, following the victory over the British at Saratoga, the Continental Congress declared a national American Thanksgiving. But while that victory gave the fledgling nation a morale boost, the War for Independence would drag on for another six years.
But the most desperate times for the nation came during the Civil War. 1863 was one of the darkest years in our nation’s history. Viewing that year through the spyglass of history, we know that the Civil War, which had begun in 1861, would be over in two years. But Americans living through it had no way of knowing when it would end; to them, it felt like the middle of forever. There was no certainty that the Union would be preserved, or that the deep national wounds would ever heal.
Even though the Northern forces had finally achieved two great victories – at Gettysburg and Vicksburg – there was still no end in sight. It hardly seemed like a time to call for the nation to give thanks.
But President Lincoln got a push in that direction from a close and trusted friend – William Henry Seward. Although he’s no longer a household name, Seward was very well known in his time. He was a governor of his native New York before moving on to the United States Senate.
Many people believed that Seward would be elected president in 1860. But when Lincoln – in one of the great surprises of American politics – won the nomination and the presidency, Seward became his secretary of state.
While Seward was an early advocate for the abolition of slavery, he is perhaps most remembered as the man who, despite near-universal criticism at the time, made possible the American purchase of Alaska from Russia. But that wasn’t his only lasting contribution to the American landscape.
As historian Doris Kearns Goodwin recounts in her book Team of Rivals, it was Seward who had a hand in bringing us Thanksgiving as we know it.
Goodwin recounted the events of one morning in October 1863 when Seward called on Lincoln and said, “Mr. President, they say that we are stealing away the rights of the States. So I have come to-day to advise you, that there is another State right I think we ought to steal.” Raising his head from his pile of papers, Lincoln asked, “Well, Governor, what do you want to steal now?” Seward replied, “The right to name Thanksgiving Day!”
Seward explained that at present, Thanksgiving was celebrated on different days at the discretion of each state’s governor. Why not make it a national holiday? “Lincoln immediately responded that he supposed a president ‘had as good a right to thank God as a Governor.’”
Seward then presented Lincoln with a proclamation that began with these words: “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…”
So here, even in the middle of this horrific war, Seward and Lincoln found blessings and hopeful developments that promised better days ahead. Lincoln’s proclamation declared: “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.”
The proclamation invited citizens “in every part of the United States…to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November” to give thanks to “our beneficent Father.” It also commended to God’s care “all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers,” as a result of the war, and called on God “to heal the wounds of the nation” and restore it to “peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”
Of course, Lincoln didn’t get to see the full promise of those blessings. Seward nearly missed them too. On the same night that John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln at Ford’s Theater, one of Booth’s co-conspirators burst into Seward’s home and tried to stab him as he lay in bed recuperating from a near-fatal carriage accident.
Happily, Seward recovered and lived several more eventful years. When he died, at age 72, in his Auburn, New York home, his last words were to his children – “Love one another.”
What better final message could we ask from the man who helped bring us a holiday that, each year, is meant to remind us that this is a time to find solace in family and friends, that we should see beauty and grace in overlooked things, and that we have many blessings for which to be thankful?
Happy Thanksgiving everyone.