Thanksgiving was declared an official holiday by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. That was in the middle of civil war, so it got me thinking about how to give thanks when we are in the middle of a war.
Thus, my column, Being thankful in the midst of war:
Being thankful in the midst of war
Thursday, November 23, 2006
It's good to have at least one day dedicated to being thankful. So much of our lives seem focused on the negative, on what's wrong, on our trials and troubles. It is a blessing to take a step back and look at what is right, and good, and encouraging.
Often the adversities of life make it hard to be thankful. But to dwell on the bad is destructive and self-defeating. We cannot ignore our problems, but neither should we let them overtake us. Bad things can have good consequences, and Thanksgiving is our chance to find the "silver lining."
For example, I spent about half this year with back-related pain. Many people have suffered more severe pain than I felt, but it was the worst thing I have ever experienced. However, because of the pain and the medication, I stopped eating. I also went through physical therapy, and started exercising. I'm as healthy as I've been for years, and I've lost fifty pounds. So I am thankful because without my injury, I'd still be just thinking about getting in shape and losing weight.
The popular mythology of Thanksgiving traces its roots to a Pilgrim celebration in 1621. Though the pilgrims had suffered adversity, they had a great harvest, and Gov. William Bradford declared a day of feasting, which turned into a 3-day festival shared with the local natives.
But some suggest our "Thanksgiving Day" descends not from that feast, but from two years later. In 1623, a severe drought struck the Plymouth colony, and the crops were dying. An expected supply ship was months late, and things looked grim. The colonists turned to prayer and fasting, and their prayers were answered. The rain fell, and word came that the delayed ship was not lost. Having survived the adversity, they declared a day of thanksgiving and prayer.
Whatever its origins, our official Thanksgiving Holiday was designated by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, during the dark days of the Civil War. His proclamation finds much to be thankful for: "In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity … 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 … diversions of wealth and of strength … have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has 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 … is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom."
We are once again in the midst of a war, but our circumstance is better than that faced by our brethren in Lincoln's day. Our losses are tragic, but modest compared to historic wars. Our enemy is not defeated, but has not managed to attack our soil in five years. Too many of us can live our lives oblivious to the hardship and sacrifice of our brave men and women on the battlefield. We have the luxury to concern ourselves with more trivial matters like the price of gas, traffic jams, or waiting in line to purchase a PlayStation 3 for Christmas.
Lincoln's Thanksgiving Day proclamation was steeped with religious meaning. "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," to whom we were to give thanks. The Pilgrims also directed their thanksgiving heavenward. Colonist Edward Winslow wrote "another solemn day was set apart and appointed for that end; we returned glory, honor, and praise, with all thankfulness, to our good God, which dealt so graciously with us."
For many, Thanksgiving is no longer so overtly religious. But whether or not we acknowledge God’s providence in our lives, we should this day acknowledge the many blessings we experience in the midst of adversity, while, as Lincoln exhorted, commending “to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers” from the war “in which we are unavoidably engaged.”
In my column, I only selectively quoted from Lincoln's proclamation, but it is worth reading in full. You can find it on the web here:
Proclamation Establishing Thanksgiving Day
October 3, 1863
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, tranquillity and Union.
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.