As the story goes, if it wasn’t for the Native Americans, the first pilgrims who arrived in America via a wooden ship called the Mayflower wouldn’t have survived their first winter. The Native Americans showed them how to fish, how to farm, and some time in November, both sides set aside their differences by coming together for a large feast. This was the first American thanksgiving. At least, this was the story that was ingrained in me when I first immigrated to America and spent my own first Thanksgiving. Little did I know, that the story of the first Thanksgiving may be more myth than history.
According to Chris Lewis, an American Studies instructor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, the holiday we know as Thanksgiving had its roots in the Civil War NOT Plymouth, Massachusetts. Constantly thanking God, Abraham Lincoln established the holiday to commemorate the dead and to unite the nation by reminding the people of the United States of being thankful for the blessings they received.
So here I am, 146 years later, and I have a lot to be thankful for. I thank God for the life He’s given me. I thank Him for giving me amazing and loving parents. I thank Him for giving me a supportive group of friends that I can laugh and cry with. I am thankful that I was able to be the first in my family to graduate from a university (UCLA, Go Bruins!). I am thankful for the freedom of speech and freedom in general. I am thankful for the men and women who fight so that freedom would still ring in this country. Yes, I have a lot to be thankful for–I don’t think I can count all the blessings that have been bestowed upon me.
Counting blessings is something that my friend Victor and I used to do before we left for college. It was a good practice for us because as emo teenagers who thought the world would end when things didn’t go as we wanted them to go, counting our blessings reminded us of how life wasn’t at all that bad. As teenagers, we were so dramatic about how we saw life, so when we wrote down on paper all the specific things we were thankful for each day for an entire week, we realized we were quite spoiled–that God gave us bountiful blessings. And as a result, if we were truly blessed, then why should we have a “woe is me” mentality?
Grateful–blessed, spoiled even. And I want to continue the habit of giving to others, and that’s my identity revealed.
Abraham Lincoln, photo credit: College Publisher
Here is the 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln (The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P. Basler)
October 3, 1863
This is the proclamation which set the precedent for America’s national day of Thanksgiving. During his administration, President Lincoln issued many orders like this. For example, on November 28, 1861, he ordered government departments closed for a local day of thanksgiving.
Sarah Josepha Hale, a prominent magazine editor, wrote a letter to Lincoln on 28, 1863, urging him to have the “day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival.” She wrote, “You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritive fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.” The document below sets apart the last Thursday of November “as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise.”
According to an April 1, 1864, letter from John Nicolay, one of President Lincoln’s secretaries, this document was written by Secretary of State William Seward, and the original was in his handwriting. On October 3, 1863, fellow Cabinet member Gideon Welles recorded in his diary that he complimented Seward on his work. A year later the manuscript was sold to benefit Union troops.
By the President of the United States of America.
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