The True Spirit of Thanksgiving

Freedom from Want by Norman Rockwell
Freedom from Want by Norman Rockwell was published in the March 6, 1943 issue of The Saturday Evening Post.

There is no holiday, except Christmas, that has more tradition surrounding it. What does July 4th or Labor Day have that compares with the wealth of traditions surrounding Thanksgiving? The big turkey dinner, the football games on TV, Macy’s parade, the start of Christmas season—all in honor of a three-day feast in Plymouth Colony that occurred 391 years ago.

While we know the traditions, we’re still fuzzy on the meaning and origins of the day. For instance, we’re not quite certain that the 1621 Massachusetts feast was, in fact, America’s first Thanksgiving. An earlier thanksgiving-like feast had been held in the Colony of Virginia in 1610. And residents of St. Augustine, Florida, talk of a thanksgiving celebration held by Spanish colonists in their city back in 1565.

Furthermore, as Roger Butterfield’s 1948 article “What You Don’t Know About Thanksgiving” points out, the Pilgrim feast of 1621 did not launch a yearly tradition. There is no record of a similar event the following year. In fact, the 1621 festival was not a “thanksgiving feast” but a simple harvest celebration. The first event dedicated to giving thanks to God was held in 1623 after a heavy rainfall resulted in a larger harvest than expected.

Pilgrim by J.C. Leyendecker
Pilgrim by J.C. Leyendecker appeared on The Saturday Evening Post cover November 29, 1924.

It really wasn’t until 1777 that the Continental Congress spread the idea of a thanksgiving day beyond New England, when it asked colonists to set aside December 18 as a day of prayer to God for an independent and strong nation. That same year, George Washington proclaimed a Thanksgiving day to celebrate the victory at Saratoga.

Not everyone welcomed this idea of a government holy day. When a congressional bill proposed the first national Thanksgiving Day in 1789, two Southern congressmen shot to their feet to protest, as Butterfield writes. “They did not think, they said, that the people had anything to be thankful for in their new government, and even if they did, the president and Congress had no right to tell them how and when to express their thankfulness.” Ultimately, President Washington overrode their objections and proclaimed a national day of Thanksgiving for that year.

But it was very different from what we know today. For most Americans the holiday was honored by fasting and prayer.

Thanksgiving would not become a national holiday until 1863, and its designation was more political than religious. Though President Lincoln called it “a day of thanksgiving and praise for our beneficent father who dwelleth in the heavens,” his principle goal was to reinforce the sense of union in loyal states through a commonly celebrated holiday.

Currier and Ives Print
This Currier and Ives print, Home to Thanksgiving, helped popularize the holiday.

Americans have honored Thanksgiving every year since then. And while we agree on the importance of the holiday, there is less agreement on what giving thanks should involve. The more traditional, religious idea emphasizes mortification and repentance. As the Post editors noted in 1877, government and commerce stops so we can have a day to express gratitude for everything, including hardships. After all, “our trials are invariably for our benefit, and that we are made to suffer apparent evil that good may result. The ways of God are inscrutable, and it’s a blessing to morals that they are so.”

Yet these same editors, just three years earlier, had seemed to recognize that some measure of joyous celebration was to be expected, even encouraged. As they wrote in 1874:

There’s a deep fund of vitality in the human breast, and the most solemn or most sorrowful observance cannot induce a major of the people to wear long face and penitential hearts. And who can blame them? We have all legitimate causes enough for depression without suffering ourselves to be legislated into the blues, while our hears are merry and our horizons clear

The right to laugh or cry is one of the reserved rights of the people, not delegated to Congress, but retained as a constituent of individual freedom.

So if we find indecorously joyful faces shaming the solemn occasion, we can console ourselves with the reflection that laughter is better than tears, and that the making of happy people is the crowning glory of a good government.

But now joy is our business. We celebrate the good that has come unto us. And God is best thanked for His gifts by clear brows and smiling faces. The let us shout and be merry, eat our fill, and laugh to our heart’s content while east and west, north and sought, the wail of the turkey is heard in the land.