Thanksgiving Day in the United States is not normally thought of as a religious holiday. It isn’t on any official church calendars, and it is not associated with any specific scriptural events. Nevertheless, the spiritual connection is clear. To whom do we direct our thanks? The recipient is Almighty God, of course.
There have been quite a few special days of prayer and thanksgiving that have been declared by various political leaders in the history of our nation. As every school child knows, the first one was celebrated in New England by the settlers of the Plymouth Colony. There followed other officially declared days of thanksgiving, sometimes in the summer months instead of autumn. The first national Thanksgiving Day was proclaimed on Thursday, November 28, 1782 by the United States Continental Congress.
Later, on October 3, 1789, President George Washington issued a proclamation that began as follows:
“Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor, and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me ‘to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.’ Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”
Other presidents also declared special days of thanks occasionally after that. Then in 1863, in the midst of civil war, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day on the last Thursday of November in appreciation of “the gracious gifts of the Most High God.” Each president subsequent to Lincoln annually declared the last Thursday of November to be Thanksgiving Day, up until 1939. That year there were five Thursdays in November, and President Roosevelt declared the fourth (not the last) one to be Thanksgiving. Fred Lazarus, Jr., founder of the Federated Department Stores (later Macy’s), is credited with convincing Roosevelt to push Thanksgiving back a week to expand the shopping season. Since then it was only a matter of time until football, eating and shopping managed to push most of the Thanks out of Thanksgiving. In fact, people these days often refer to the holiday only as Turkey Day.
I hope that this year all of us can be more mindful of the original intentions for our national day of thanksgiving. Thanks be to God. Have a blessed Thanksgiving Day.