Whether you observe Thanksgiving or not, it’s instructive to note that the modern national holiday was born in a time even more divisive, contentious, and uncertain than our own – and that it came to be in no small part thanks to the efforts of a woman named Sarah Josepha Hale.
Hale was the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, a women’s magazine with the largest circulation of any periodical before the Civil War. An activist on several fronts, she was particularly invested in the idea of a national day of giving thanks, to be held at the same time every year.
She believed that such a unifying measure could help ease growing tensions and divisions between the northern and southern parts of the country. Her efforts paid off: By 1854, more than 30 states and U.S. territories had a Thanksgiving celebration on the books, but Hale’s vision of a national holiday remained unfulfilled.
Even after war broke out, Hale continued her campaign, “urging Americans to ‘put aside sectional feelings and local incidents’ and rally around the unifying cause of Thanksgiving.” Eventually, she took her request to the top, reaching out to President Lincoln and his secretary of state, William Seward.
Within a week, Seward had drafted and Lincoln had issued Proclamation 118, establishing Thanksgiving Day. While the religious references in the text may give some pause, its spirit rings no less true today. For despite all the challenges, our leaders found reasons for gratitude.
It has pleased Almighty God to prolong our national life another year, defending us with His guardian care against unfriendly designs from abroad and vouchsafing to us in His mercy many and signal victories over the enemy, who is of our own household. It has also pleased our Heavenly Father to favor as well our citizens in their homes as our soldiers in their camps and our sailors on the rivers and seas with unusual health. He has largely augmented our free population by emancipation and by immigration, while He has opened to us new sources of wealth and has crowned the labor of our workingmen in every department of industry with abundant rewards. Moreover, He has been pleased to animate and inspire our minds and hearts with fortitude, courage, and resolution sufficient for the great trial of civil war into which we have been brought by our adherence as a nation to the cause of freedom and humanity, and to afford to us reasonable hopes of an ultimate and happy deliverance from all our dangers and afflictions…
Like other holidays this year, Thanksgiving will look quite different in 2020. Public health officials are urging us not to travel or gather in large groups like we might be used to. Heightened distancing measures are being recommended to keep smaller gatherings safe. Big events such as Thanksgiving parades have been canceled.
Even as there are those who are welcoming a respite from the flurry of the usual holiday activities, others are devising ways of keeping community at the heart of Thanksgiving celebrations when circumstances keep us from coming together.
Of course there’s video chat. But there are other ways we can connect. Maintaining family traditions – familiar foods, familiar activities – can reinforce our sense of bondedness even in the absence of our loved ones. We can also connect with our larger community by giving to others. We can donate food or volunteer time to a local mission or other outreach. We can network with neighbors to facilitate safe Thanksgiving activities for children in our neighborhood.
And as Lincoln’s example shows, even in challenging times, we can still be thankful – for our health, our home, our employment, others who love and support us. Above all, perhaps, we can be grateful for the resilience that has helped us rise to meet the challenges this pandemic year has brought.
And gratitude likewise keeps us connected to others, even as it fills and transforms us.
There’s a familiar quote by Gautama Buddha that resonates more than ever this year:
What are you grateful for this year? Share your experience in the comments.
Table image by dnak, via WIkimedia Commons