The First Thanksgiving

November 30, 2017

Isn’t there anyone who knows what Thanksgiving is all about?!

Sure, I can tell you what Thanksgiving is all about. Lights, please?

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 unequalled 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 had 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 consciousness 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 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, tranquility and Union.

This is Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation in 1863, officially declaring Thanksgiving a holiday, continuing to this day, changed only when FDR made it the fourth November Thursday rather than last, so we celebrated a week ago rather than today.

There were earlier proclamations of specific thanksgiving days with very similar text by earlier presidents here and there, but Lincoln’s is about where it was mostly set as an annual thing where it still is now.

What I don’t see is anything about the pilgrims at Plymouth. About two and a half centuries earlier. It’s mentioned at the above link, but also mentioned is there were numerous such feasts through the then colonies around the time.

Yet for some reason we’ve decided this particular Puritan celebration in Massachusetts is the iconic one we name the first and make it the holiday’s aesthetic. And because of the role of Native Americans and the subsequent genocide, the story and the holiday as a whole is considered by some to be offensive to Native Americans, perhaps even a celebration of the genocide.

Something which, again, I don’t see in the above proclamation. Unless perhaps the bits in the first paragraph about the enlarged “borders of our settlements”?

But I don’t much want to go into the issue of Native Americans and Thanksgiving. I’ll leave those with more knowledge on that subject and those with a lot less than they let on (like a number of white people on Facebook dubiously claiming distant Native American ancestry and declaring the holiday an affront to them and their “ancestors” and just screaming genocide over and over at anyone who asks any questions, we all know at least one) to fight that out.

So that’s what I don’t see in Lincoln’s proclamation making Thanksgiving an official national holiday.

What I do see is rather overwhelming religious language!

The second paragraph again:

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.

These and the numerous other mentions of God, even specifying that “Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens” is the point of the observance, are quite a bit more than a tacked on “under God” in a creepy scholastic morning chant. This is a president straight up telling you to pray to this particular angry deity.

I mean, not everyone in the US is Christian, nor were they then. Kind of exclusionary language, privileging Christian belief and ignoring everyone else. Making the holiday a Christian specific thing, leaving others out. (While the language could more broadly be read to include Jews and Muslims as well, yeah, you can tell Christians are who it’s really meant for.)

Except, in reality, not only does everyone of any religion celebrate Thanksgiving, but the holiday is considered secular. Yeah, the bit about thanking an angry heavenly father for not being angry, crediting that heavenly father for all good fortune… yeah, all that is the words that proclaimed this somehow secular holiday that people of any religious belief celebrate.

But then Christmas is considered religious, for Christians only. Many non-Christians celebrate it of course, but it’s still widely considered a Christian religious observance, the numerous symbols and icons from other winter solstice celebrations coming into it notwithstanding. Christmas wasn’t made a holiday by presidential proclamation, but of course it’s not a US specific thing anyway and obviously already existed on that date when it became a federal holiday in 1870. But there was no declaration of a specific religious action for Christmas. It was just already a strong cultural observance in the land and elsewhere, at least from the stance of the country making it a day off. And in practice, while of course there are church services and songs and such about the Nativity, the holiday is quite a bit more than that, and it’s pretty easy to celebrate it without doing anything involving Jesus. Many people do exactly that.

Yet even now, it’s still regarded as being primarily religious and only for Christians. Some say “but it says Christ right there in the name, LOL!” Well, in English anyway, sure. But Thanksgiving is called that because thanksgiving is a kind of prayer. Christmas is just about acknowledgement of an event in a story (among a lot of other things). Thanksgiving is about a specific religious action for a religious purpose. Sure, just like the Christ can be taken out of Christmas if so desired, you can just not pray at your Thanksgiving table. I certainly don’t (unless “thank God, I’m done cooking, I can finally eat” counts). But the point is, both holidays have a Christian religious connotation in their English names, and both can be done without acknowledging the Christian religious side of things, so you’d think they’d be even as to whether they are considered secular and for everyone or religious and only for practitioners of that religion.

In fact, if something tips the scale, you’d think it’d be the one that specifically commands praying to God to thank him for any good fortune you have. You wouldn’t think it’d be the other one and not that one.

You’d think there’d at least also be more issue around that it’s the US, with the First Amendment forbidding favoring any religion, commanding this pious gratitude every November. Which is what you’d expect from a holiday that is set by an actual ecumenical body.

Hell, you’d think the evangelicals would be getting up in arms about people thinking the holiday is only about turkey and forgetting about being thankful to God. War on Thanksgiving anyone?

But then again, maybe no one notices all that, because they’re too busy thinking some story about pilgrims has to do with anything. Just as despite the many others involved in the observance, many are too busy thinking the story about some parthenogenic Jewish teenager’s baby means those who don’t believe that baby to be magical shouldn’t be welcome.

I guess stories are just powerful like that.