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Is Thanksgiving Obsolete?

Thanksgiving, unlike the Fourth of July, America’s other great national holiday, remains an enigma. Sandwiched between Halloween and Christmas, it is a holiday with an uncertain history and an unclear purpose. We know, of course, that practice of thanksgiving is rooted in religious traditions, both American and European Christian. Children are typically taught in kindergarten or first grade that a group Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians shared the first Thanksgiving meal in 1621. They later learn that this idyllic account of Thanksgiving gives a false impression of Native American culture and ignores the violence that decimated native tribes throughout New England.

Abraham Lincoln declared a national celebration of Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November in 1863 during the very middle of the Civil with a proclamation that explained: “It has seemed to me fit and proper that they [Gods gifts over the past year] should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.” He added that the offering of gratitude to God be done “with humble penitence for our national perversenessand a prayer that God “heal the wounds of the nation … restoring it to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and Union.”

Credit for Lincoln’s proclamation and for influencing the American public to embrace the national holiday goes to the “Godmother of Thanksgiving,” Sarah Josepha Buell Hale. Hale was a teacher novelist, and magazine editor, who is best known for writing “Mary had a Little Lamb.” She waged a 36-year campaign to assure that Thanksgiving be celebrated in every home throughout the country. Hall did more than convince Lincoln to fix the date for Thanksgiving. She affixed the meaning that the holiday was to have for families and our country as a whole:

It is a festival which will never become obsolete, for it cherishes the best affections of the heart – the social and domestic ties. It calls together the dispersed members of the family circle, and brings plenty, joy and gladness to the dwellings of the poor and lowly.

Hale must be turning in her grave. This year Black Friday begins at 6:00 A.M. Thursday when Walmart and Kmart open for shoppers. What became of Lincoln’s idea that Thanksgiving was to be set aside so that the “whole American people” can give thanks “with one heart and one voice?” How can a festival that is supposed to gather “the dispersed members of the family circle” scatter family members to work and to shop? Why is the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” widening when the bounty of our prosperity is be shared with the “poor and lowly?”

Thanksgiving may be slipping into obsolescence, but together we can do something about it. We don’t have to lose Thanksgiving to Black Friday; and we don’t need to wait five days for “Giving Tuesday. It is time to reclaim our national holiday by tending to “the best affections of the heart” and bringing “plenty, joy, and gladness to the dwellings of the poor and lowly.”


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