Lincoln And Thanksgiving
It is easy to be thankful, to feel gratitude, when we get good news.
You got the job!”
Your tests came back and showed no cancer!”
The baby is healthy!”
In those moments, and so many like them, we give a short prayer of Thanksgiving. But do we remember to be thankful when times are hard? I say that’s the appropriate time to be grateful for all that we have been given and optimistic that our strengths will carry us through our trials!
Abraham Lincoln had one of the most unique minds of any American. He saw things that few others could see. In the worst of times Lincoln remained optimistic and in the best of times he kept himself grounded. His decision to begin what we know as the modern celebration of Thanksgiving is an example of his profound insights into man, the mind, and our relationship with God.
Most Americans have a general sense of Thanksgiving beginning as a celebration between Pilgrims and Native Americans (Wampanoag) in 1621.What many people don’t realize is that the first Thanksgiving day did not lead to an annual event. Between the 1620s and that the 1860s, Thanksgiving days were occasionally proclaimed by governors, legislatures, and even the federal government. But none led to our modern celebration. In fact, in some southern areas, the celebration of Thanksgiving was banned because of its association with the Pilgrim faith!
Beginning in 1846, a brilliant author and editor, Sarah Hale, wrote letters to every president, urging the creation of a national Thanksgiving Day. Her requests fell on deaf ears until Abraham Lincoln received a letter from her. Lincoln was a man of deep spiritual feeling who had an overwhelming faith in God and a belief in prayer. He thought often about the relationship between everyday events and God’s intent. When he received the letter, her reasoning resonated with him. He recognized that even in the midst of the bloodiest year of the bloodiest war in American history, there was so much for Americans to be grateful about. That even as men were dying to end the abomination of slavery, as families were being torn apart and children were being left without their fathers, there was still much to be celebrated in American life. Crops were still being harvested, factories were still working, our boundaries were being expanded and people continued to enjoy the every day blessings of life. Children were born, weddings occurred, promotions were received, school exams were passed.
It may seem counterintuitive to declare a national Day of Thanksgiving in the midst of the carnage of the Civil War, but Lincoln’s thinking was often counter-intuitive. He saw the big picture. He understood the need for perspective. And he deeply, deeply felt the need for gratitude in our lives. In 1863 he set aside the last Thursday of November for Thanksgiving day. From that year on, Americans have been urged to put aside one day every year to simply be grateful. Lincoln and Thanksgiving were a natural fit
Our society seems to have developed a collective case of attention deficit disorder. It is physically difficult for many people to simply sit through a movie in a theater or attend a Broadway play without turning on their cell phones. We have a hard time living in the present moment. And nowhere is that more evident than on Thanksgiving day.
Thanksgiving sits between two holidays that have been morphed into consumer driven days of giving and getting: Halloween and Christmas. Halloween is a day for make-believe and for demanding treats. Christmas, despite its religious overtones, has become a consumerist frenzy. And what happens to Thanksgiving? Americans want to rush through it, check it off the list of things to do before they begin shopping again. More and more stores open on Thanksgiving, ignoring the real meaning of the day and ignoring the real needs of their employees. Why can’t we express gratitude on Thursday and wait until Friday to shop?
Abraham Lincoln would be appalled.
So should we all.
In a sense, everything you have was given to you by someone else. If you work hard to pass a test, someone taught you how to pass that test, taught you how to read, provided you with the time and the security and the space you needed in which to study. If you worked hard to create a business, so many other people contributed to your success, did they not? If you work hard and save your money to buy a car, it is probably because somebody gave you a job, believed in you, gave you money, found some way to put you in a position where you could actually save money without needing it to simply survive. Are you grateful?
A day that he saw as a day of reflection and gratitude has been turned into a day of obligation, football, and food without remembering thankfulness. Lincoln and Thanksgiving have something more important to say to us.
Thanksgiving deserves your attention. If only for a few hours one Thursday every year, take the time to appreciate and give thanks for all that is before you, even in times of trial, like Lincoln.
Lincoln and Thanksgiving.