I was doing some research on Thanksgiving and its traditions for this blogpost and I came across the words of president Abraham Lincoln. In 1863, as the US was in the middle of the Civil War, Lincoln announced that, in an effort to ‘heal the wounds of the nation’ he had scheduled Thanksgiving for the last Thursday of November. ‘Healing the wounds of the nation’ seems an especially apropos sentiment this Thanksgiving as it comes on the heels of an election year with harsh and hateful rhetoric.
I don’t believe anything good comes from building walls or talking about a ‘them and us’ as if we are not all human beings with the same basic needs and dreams. And I don’t think it’s just because I am a woman or an immigrant that I find myself fearful of where we’re headed as a country. I am fearful because we have let hate and suspicion become part of our national consciousness. We let ourselves be placated by slogans when we should have sought deeper understanding. Healing the wounds of the nation seems just as important this Thanksgiving as it did 150 years ago.
So, this post is supposed to be about Thanksgiving in America, and you might be wondering why I’m talking about the recent election and not about the Pilgrims. After all, weren’t they the ones who ‘started’ Thanksgiving? And it is of course true that Thanksgiving can be dated back to 1621 when the newly arrived Pilgrims held a celebration of their first successful harvest since their arrival to the US the year before. It is perhaps worth noting here that the Pilgrims were early European settlers in search of a better life, like so many others who have come to the US – before and after.
Thanksgiving didn’t become a nation-wide holiday until the 19th century, and that happened in some part because of the work of the writer and editor Sarah Josepha Hale (most known for having written the nursery rhyme ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’). She was a bit of a trailblazer in her day, advocating among other things for equal education for women and men. She was the successful editor of several popular magazines and at the beginning of 1827 she started an over 30-year long campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday.
She wrote letters to politicians in various ranks of power, including presidents, and published numerous editorials advocating for a national day of thanks. Eventually, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln made his proclamation of the need to heal the wounds of the nation and Thanksgiving has been celebrated on the last Thursday of November every year since (except for a couple of years in the late 1930s, when it was moved up a week).
Today, Thanksgiving is one of the biggest holidays of the year. Schools are closed and most people get a day or two off work. Families travel wide and far to be near loved ones and to share a meal of turkey and stuffing and pumpkin pie. Thanksgiving has also become the kick-off to the holiday shopping season, with many people heading out for frenzied bargain hunting in the wee hours the day after the big feast. By now there are also some strange traditions attached to this holiday, such as the presidential pardon of a turkey or two!
I have celebrated Thanksgiving ever since I first arrived in the US some 20 years ago. However, I never established an emotional bond to this holiday. I do recognize that for most Americans this is THE big holiday of the year. This is the time where childhood memories are built, where old traditions are honored and where loud discussions around the dinner table make way for frantic football cheering in front of the TV and later, evening walks around the neighborhood, reluctant kids in tow.
I may not have a strong emotional bond to Thanksgiving but I do think that this year it will mean something more to me than just a feast shared with near and dear. I think it can serve as a reminder that as a nation we indeed have some wounds to heal and that as friends, families, co-workers, neighbors and strangers we have a lot of work to do. I know I do.
By: Felicia Shermis