This week will contain the fourth Thursday in November. Since 1942, by an act of Congress, this date has been Thanksgiving. Before that, it was observed intermittently and on various dates. Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, had proclaimed the last Thursday in November a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” Before him, George Washington, in 1789, proclaimed Thursday, November 26th to be a day of public thanksgiving and prayer. However, the originators of this most blessed day are the Pilgrims, who in 1621 feasted for 3 days with 90 Native Americans (there were only 53 Pilgrims.)
If you know me at all, you know Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. There is not nearly as much build-up as Christmas, there are much lower expectations (no gifts needed or anticipated), and there is lots of food. All fantastic reasons for this to be my favorite holiday.
The actual reason though, is the meaning of the holiday itself—a day set aside to acknowledge our blessings and be grateful. Grateful to, as George Washington put it in his proclamation in 1789, “that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”
Grateful and Thankful are related but not exactly the same. Like so many words, I’m sure for some people they have come to mean roughly the same thing. However, I think there is an important distinction.
I can be thankful without being truly grateful but being truly grateful always leads to being thankful. It is a little like faith and good works. A person can do good things without being a person of faith, but a person with real faith will always be a person of good works.
Interestingly, both individually and nationally, we seem to be reminded of gratefulness by hardship more than by prosperity. About 3 million people take a commercial flight in the United States every day. You will rarely, if ever, see one of them express gratefulness for their life as they disembark. However, if there is an inflight emergency that puts the flight at risk and yet they manage to land safely, you will observe many of them expressing gratefulness to God and the pilots for getting them safely back to earth.
The first Thanksgiving was a celebration of the Pilgrims’ successful harvest. They were grateful to God that they were in a new land where they could be free from religious persecution and had managed to survive. “Survive” is the operative word as more than half their number had died since they left Europe. Also, their harvest being successful was simply that they felt they had enough not to starve to death during the coming winter. Still, they gave thanks.
When George Washington proclaimed a day to be set aside for Thanksgiving, the newly formed nation wasn’t in great shape. Between 1774 and 1789, the American economy (GDP per capita) shrank by close to 30 percent. Devastation of real property, a contraction of the labor force due to war deaths and injuries, the cessation of British credit, and exclusion from markets in Britain and the West Indies resulted in widespread economic collapse. So, Washington was speaking to a nation reeling from hardship and not yet recovered from a devastating war for independence. Still, they gave thanks.
In 1863, the nation was still almost two years away from an end to the Civil War, a bloody conflict that left almost one million Americans dead and almost that many wounded. Lincoln, in the depths of this conflict, declared: “In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity,” that the many blessings they enjoyed were, “the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.” The economy was in peril, major cities lay in ruin, and there was no end in sight. It’s hard to imagine today what a war fought on our own soil would be like, but it was, according to history, horrific. Still, they gave thanks.
In 1942, when Thanksgiving was given a permanent observation date, the United States was in the middle of World War II. The conflict was active in both Europe and the Pacific and again, the end wasn’t in sight. While the economic engine was wound up for war production, people were experiencing rationing, shortages, and most importantly, loss of lives in the war. Still, they gave thanks.
While the current crisis we are experiencing is not comparable to the situation of the Pilgrims or a Civil or World war, it has nevertheless been a year of hardship for many, and we are not out of the woods yet. What do we have to be grateful for? What are the blessings we have been granted by God?
I am grateful that, though far from perfect, we live in a country where we are free to read and discuss, worship and pray, disagree and dissent, all without fear of federal prosecution. We enjoy a standard of living so good that even the poorest 20% of Americans purchase and consume more than the average of most European nation’s citizens. We have abundant resources available to us—beauty, space, time, and experience to name a few.
I am grateful for health (mental as well as physical) that while never quite perfect is better than most of my forefathers (and mothers). I am grateful for family and friends and colleagues who give my life depth and fullness. I am grateful for experiences that impact my thoughts and opinions and help me to learn and grow every day. So, on Thursday you will find me eating my family’s traditional foods and listening to stories, some I have heard before and some new. You will also find me contemplating a little more carefully than you would on a “regular” day, all the things I am grateful for. Hopefully you will find me thanking the people I love, and the God who loves me for the many blessings I have received. What are you grateful for? When you think about what you have been given, you can’t help but be thankful. Giving thanks is the action that results from being grateful, and it is The Kimray Way.