Thanksgiving was established as a religious holiday. Abraham Lincoln signed the proclamation that instituted Thanksgiving as a national holiday. The document of 1863 established that the last Thursday of November would be set aside as a day of giving thanks to God. In 1941, President Roosevelt changed the day to the 4th Thursday of November.
Lincoln knew that we are often prone to forget to thank God. We receive so much from his bountiful goodness but fail to give Him credit. He begins his proclamation with these words, “To these bounties (fruitful lands and beautiful skies), 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.”
Toward the end of the proclamation Lincoln states, “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.”
Although Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a holiday, he was not the first President to sign a proclamation of thanksgiving to God. That was George Washington! He wrote in 1789, “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.”
Interesting enough, both proclamations, that of Washington and that of Lincoln, were proclaimed in times of War. Washington signed his shortly after the Revolutionary War and Lincoln signed his during the bloody Civil War. Both men understood suffering and death, and neither could separate from their thoughts the light God offers to draw us out of any darkness. They knew that it would only be through God’s providential hand that this country could be healed, and its wounds stitched.
I love Thanksgiving Day. I feel that it is still, at least somewhat, attached to its roots. While our post-Christian culture has all but divorced Christmas from the Incarnation and Easter from the Resurrection, this last holdout—this simple ritual of gratitude—is still hanging on. Maybe it’s because even the self-help gurus of our age understand the societal and personal benefits of giving thanks. Gratitude is a way of opening and expanding the heart. I always advise it in Spiritual Direction, and I also begin my own personal prayer each day by giving thanks. Even amid my personal weaknesses and darkest days, gratitude helps me see God’s loving face.
Therefore, I encourage all who might read this article to not disassociate Thanksgiving Day from giving thanks to God. Because while gratitude is certainly a good place to start, feeling thankful isn’t quite the same thing as thanksgiving. Thanksgiving differs from gratitude in this respect: it requires an object. There must be a Giver to whom we give thanks and whom we acknowledge as the source of our gifts. Unless we can bring ourselves to offer true thanksgiving to the Giver, our happiness rests on shaky ground. Maybe, this Thanksgiving Day, you can go to Mass or offer a rosary or light a candle in a church. Begin this Thanksgiving meal, if you don’t already do it at every meal, by giving thanks to God for all He has given us.
Washington and Lincoln could not conceive of a Thanksgiving Day without giving praise to Almighty God. Neither should we!
Fr. Michael Harrington, a native of Swampscott, MA, is a Catholic Priest for the Archdiocese of Boston, and Currently the Pastor of St. Mary’s of the Annunciation Catholic Church in Cambridge. In the past he served as The Director of the Office of Cultural Diversity for the Archidiocese of Boston and is currently a Consecrated member of the Institute of Jesus the Priest (the Pauline Family).