The Thanksgiving holiday is one of America’s oldest traditions, predating even the birth of our nation. It was always intended to be a time for us to pause from the hectic pace of life to count our blessings and give thanks to God.
Unfortunately, that central theme has gotten a bit lost over time. Years ago the Friday after Thanksgiving became the unofficial start of the Christmas shopping season. Nowadays, more and more stores are open on Thanksgiving Day, not even waiting until “Black Friday” to begin the frenetic retail traffic. The “pause” has given way to a mere tap on the brakes.
Thanksgiving, of course, has its roots with the Pilgrims in 1621, but the national holiday we now celebrate didn’t truly get started until much later. George Washington, who was “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” was also the first to issue a presidential proclamation calling for a national day of thanksgiving. But even that wasn’t really the beginning of Thanksgiving as we know it.
It really started in 1863, at the height of the Civil War, when President Lincoln issued a proclamation setting aside the last Thursday of November as a “day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”
He followed up with another proclamation the next year, and a tradition was born. Since Lincoln’s first in 1863, there is an unbroken chain of Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamations that has been maintained from one president to another, through natural deaths and assassinations, no matter the party or ideology of whoever resides in the White House.
It’s a shame that the proclamations aren’t better publicized because they are thoughtful, sometimes quite beautiful, and always appeal to our better angels. And they reflect the personality of the men who wrote them.
It’s no surprise, then, that President Reagan’s proclamations are steeped in the tradition of Thanksgiving, and unabashedly illustrate his deep faith and love of country.
For his first proclamation, Reagan invoked the memory of the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving, and emphasized the “giving” part of Thanksgiving. “Clearly,” he wrote, “our forefathers were thankful not only for the material well-being of their harvest but for this abundance of goodwill as well. In this spirit, Thanksgiving has become a day when Americans extend a helping hand to the less fortunate.”
You can easily hear Reagan’s voice in this next part. “Long before there was a government welfare program, this spirit of voluntary giving was ingrained in the American character. Americans have always understood that, truly, one must give in order to receive. This should be a day of giving as well as a day of thanks.”
Reagan’s abiding love for America and his belief in its exceptional place in the world came through loud and clear in his 1982 proclamation. “Above all other nations of the world, America has been especially blessed and should give special thanks.
“I have always believed that this anointed land was set apart in an uncommon way, that a divine plan placed this great continent here between the oceans to be found by people from every corner of the Earth who had a special love of faith and freedom.”
In 1983, Reagan used his proclamation to address the issue of religion and its place in the public sphere. He harkened back to Lincoln, whose first proclamation was written just days after his speech at Gettysburg.
“In his remarks at Gettysburg,” Reagan wrote, “President Lincoln referred to ours as a Nation ‘under God.’ We rejoice that, while we have maintained separate institutions of church and state over our 200 years of freedom, we have at the same time preserved reverence for spiritual beliefs. Although we are a pluralistic society, the giving of thanks can be a true bond of unity among our people. We can unite in gratitude for our individual freedoms and individual faiths. We can be united in gratitude for our Nation’s peace and prosperity when so many in this world have neither.”
He returned to that theme in 1987 – in what was perhaps the finest of his eight proclamations – as he recounted how much the founding of our nation was intertwined with religion and faith. He wrote, “Through the decades, through the centuries, in log cabins, country churches, cathedrals, homes, and halls, the American people have paused to give thanks to God, in time of peace and plenty or of danger and distress.
“Acknowledgment of dependence on God’s favor was, in fact, our fledgling Nation’s very first order of business. When the delegates to the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in 1774, they overcame discord by uniting in prayer for our country. Despite the differences among them as they began their work, they found common voice in the 35th Psalm, which concludes with a verse of joyous gratitude, ‘And my tongue shall speak of thy righteousness and of thy praise all the day long.’”
After quoting scripture, Reagan returned to the words of George Washington’s first proclamation. “As we thank the God our first President called ‘that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be,’ we have even greater cause for gratitude than the fresh triumphs that inspired Washington’s prose.”
In his closing words that year, you can hear President Reagan’s wonder and awe of America.
“We have seen the splendor of our natural resources spread across the tables of the world, and we have seen the splendor of freedom coursing with new vigor through the channels of history. The cause for which we give thanks, for which so many of our citizens through the years have given their lives, has endured 200 years – a blessing to us and a light to all mankind.”
There it is, summed up so beautifully – “the splendor of freedom…a blessing to us and a light to all mankind.” What better reason to pause and give thanks this day?
Happy Thanksgiving, Everybody.