It’s never “just another Thanksgiving,” of course. The holiday is so ingrained in us as Americans that each one is a day unto itself–a day given over to family, to abundant feasting, and, to be sure, an acknowledgment of the special graces that flow our way.
And yet there is something extra-special about Thanksgiving Day 2012. We’re on the verge of the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of the first national day of Thanksgiving by President Abraham Lincoln. As the incredible burdens of the Civil War swirled about him, the president proclaimed the first official U.S. Thanksgiving Day in a formal statement that began, “The year that is drawing towards its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.” The date was Oct. 3, 1863, and from this distant vantage point one can only marvel at this remarkable declaration of faith in the midst of fearsome battles and the daily toll of human lives they took.
A day of thanksgiving had been observed many times in the past, most famously–in the autumn of 1621–by the pilgrims of Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. They were joined by some of the local Native Americans, and even though the spirit of friendship would not be a lasting one, it provided a measure of comfort for the struggling band. Plymouth’s governor, William Bradford, would write of the colonists on this occasion: “They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty.”
The custom would grow as time went on. Especially after a young America gained its independence, many of its citizens wanted the opportunity to express their thanks to a generous God who seemed to bless their nation with special abundance. Even as President Abraham Lincoln had taken note of the custom; in 1861 he directed that federal buildings would be closed so that workers could observe a day of thanksgiving.
But a magazine editor named Sarah Josepha Hale was at least indirectly responsible for that first formal proclamation. She wrote to Lincoln to urge him to declare a national day of Thanksgiving, recognizing “an increasing interest felt in our land,” and the president gave her a positive answer almost immediately. He dispatched the secretary of state, William Seward, to draft a proclamation for him, and the phrases that Seward came up with have endured down through the generations.
Voicing gratitude for the many bounties America enjoyed, he wrote: “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.”
Just as they were in Lincoln’s time, they’re words for us to live by today. Giving thanks to God is always in season. We should give thanks, too, that we continue to have a special day to turn to Him who makes all things possible. That’s why it will never be “just another Thanksgiving.” Each one will always have its own personal meaning…and here’s hoping it stays that way for all time.