Ah, the holidays are upon us again.
And this week we have one that is uniquely ours.
Being grateful is such a huge asset to one’s life, and to think we have an entire celebration in its honor. It’s interesting to note how it came about, especially the timing of the federal holiday.
We all know the story of the first Thanksgiving, with the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag. Originally celebrated as a harvest festival (thank God we have food!), the first one lasted 3 days. Makes my stomach hurt to think about it.
Not until 1863 however, during the Civil War, did it become a national day of Thanksgiving, via Lincoln’s proclamation.
Which got me to thinking . . .
Isn’t it ironic that during the very worst of our nation’s history, the president proclaimed a day reserved solely for giving thanks? I mean, if at any time Americans could be forgiven for wallowing in their misery, 1863 would sure qualify.
In the very midst of the carnage.
In the very time when it looked as though our nation would be wrought apart.
When Lord knows if anybody had reason to dissolve into a puddle or just shoot someone, Lincoln did.
When being grateful was surely a hard-fought emotion to find . . .
In the midst of all that, this country chose to focus on gratitude. To proclaim an entire day in its honor.
Interestingly, the biggest champion of the idea of this national day of giving thanks was a prominent writer and editor of the day, Sarah Josepha Hale. She wrote the children’s poem, “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and helped found the American Ladies Magazine, which she used as a platform to promote women’s issues. She lobbied state and federal officials to pass legislation to create a fixed, national day of thanks.
In 1861 and 1862, Confederate President Jefferson Davis issued Thanksgiving Day proclamations following Southern victories. President Lincoln did as well, in April 1862 and again in the summer of 1863 after the Battle of Gettysburg.
But even after the Battle of Gettysburg in July of 1863, victory for the Union looked iffy. Not due to what was happening on the field of battle, but rather because the North itself was losing its stomach for the War. For a host of complex reasons, growing numbers of citizens and soldiers alike wanted peace.
Not until after the Gettysburg Address (delivered months after the Battle, in November of 1863, at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg) did the people of the North become galvanized to continue on. In large part due to the Gettysburg Address, the North found again its reason to fight.
Lincoln’s inclusion to speak at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery in November, 1863, was actually an afterthought. I shudder to think had he not given that address . . .
And I cannot imagine what Lincoln must have been feeling in the Fall of 1863.
In September of 1863 (after the Battle, before the Address), Hale wrote to both the president and Secretary of State William Seward, again urging them to declare a national Thanksgiving Day. And, to make it permanent.
Within the week after receiving Hale’s letter, Seward drafted Lincoln’s official proclamation, a move that both men hoped would help “heal the wounds of the nation.”
As divisive a time as we’ve gone through, and as many people who are still grieving now, it pales entirely by the standards of 1863.
And the proclamation’s words and sentiments ring eerily familiar today . . .
Join me in being thankful for this wonderful land, no matter the battles we still have to fight, by listening to the words Lincoln proclaimed:
“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 . . .
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, tranquility and Union.”
Wishing you and yours a wonderful season of giving thanks.
Award-winning writer and editor Susan Mary Malone is the author of the novels, "I Just Came Here to Dance" and "By the Book," as well as four co-authored nonfiction books, including "What’s Wrong with My Family?" and many published short stories. Forty-plus Malone-edited books have now sold to traditional publishers.