Most of what we know about the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving is more legend than fact. For example, official records don’t mention serving turkey, although the Pilgrims did eat various kinds of fish and shellfish. If we wanted an authentic Thanksgiving feast, we’d be eating cod, mussels and cornmeal mush. Personally, I prefer turkey.
We do know the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts in November 1620 and held a feast to thank God for his blessings at harvest time the next fall. This was by no means an annual event – the Pilgrims did not celebrate Thanksgiving the following year, or any year thereafter. Perhaps, like the rest of us, they got too busy with daily chores and family concerns to take the time to thank God.
Several Presidents, including George Washington, designated one-time holidays to give thanks, but Thanksgiving did not become an official holiday until Abraham Lincoln made his now-famous proclamation on October 3, 1863. This seems like a strange time to give thanks, as the nation was being torn apart by a brutal war that pitted brother against brother and threatened to tear apart the very fabric of the country.
And yet Lincoln took the time to set down some things that could be viewed in a positive light. Even though the United States was weakened by civil war, foreign countries had not taken advantage of this to attack our shores. Areas away from the battlefields were mostly calm, when insurrections or riots might have been predicted. Although the war had hurt the economy, farms, factories and mines were still producing goods. Lincoln expressed confidence that the United States would find a way to remain whole and free. He went on to say:
“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 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.”
Despite all the wars, tragedies and disasters that have occurred since 1863, citizens of the United States still have many reasons to give thanks. Consider the Bill of Rights, which is just as unique and empowering now as when it was first put on paper over 200 years ago. It states that Americans are free to think and worship as they please. We can express ourselves in public without fear of “thought police” dragging us away, and we can assemble freely to discuss politics, religion or whatever else is on our minds. No one can restrict our travel, imprison us without a trial or take away our freedom without due process.
The Declaration of Independence first laid out the radical idea that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Although Americans take it for granted that power flows upward from the people to their elected leaders, in 1776 this simple declaration was a total reversal of the way countries had been ruled for thousands of years. Take a look around the world in 2004 and you’ll see that citizens in many countries are still forced to do whatever their all-powerful leaders dictate, and they have no voice in deciding their own fate. This year, we can give thanks that two more countries – Afghanistan and Iraq – are now taking their first steps toward free elections and democracy. Just imagining how it would be to live under the control of someone like Saddam Hussein should make us all appreciate our freedom.
The United States isn’t perfect. People go to bed hungry in the richest country in the world. Our service men and women are still losing their lives overseas. Violence, ignorance and prejudice have not been eliminated, and probably never will be. Some of our politicians and business leaders may prove to be incompetent or dishonest.
We may argue, debate and complain about our political system or our economy. Maybe the person, party or issue we championed went down to defeat at the polls, but at least we had a fighting chance to choose. Once the Nevada Legislature convenes on February 7, we’ll have many more opportunities to participate in the democratic process.
If we don’t like the way things are, it’s our right and our duty as Americans to do something about it. And that’s the greatest blessing of all.
This November, let’s spend at least one day thinking of the many reasons we have to give thanks, and to direct those thanks where they belong – to the God who has watched over our country all these years.