OPINION — It’s interesting how some of our most popular holidays are more often defined by the symbols of our celebration and less by the substance of why we celebrate them.
Independence Day is joyfully represented by flags, parades, fireworks, cookouts and picnics, yet few people bother to observe the underlying reason for which that day exists. Likewise, Thanksgiving is synonymous with food, football and family, followed closely by combat shopping for Christmas.
How differently might we approach these holidays if we individually understood their historical significance and why they were observed in the first place?
Few people realize that much of what we’re told about the first Thanksgiving celebration in 1621 is largely a tall tale. Most of us were raised to understand that a year after landing at Plymouth Rock, the hard-working Pilgrims, along with certain Indian tribes they’d befriended, celebrated their good fortune with a bounteous feast.
But this is a patently false account.
In the essay “The Great Thanksgiving Hoax”, Richard J. Marbury documents that the Pilgrims’ first few years were marked by starvation, laziness and corruption. The Pilgrims were practicing an early form of socialism that required all of their profits and benefits be placed into the common stock and all of their meat, drink, apparel and provisions be taken out of the common stock.
Able-bodied men balked at the prospect of spending their strength laboring for others who were not contributing to colony’s efforts. Rather than work in the fields, many colonists instead preferred to steal the growing crops before they could be harvested.
The famines ended in 1623 when Gov. William Bradford replaced their collectivist economic approach with a free market that allowed each household to own land and to keep or trade whatever they produced.
Suddenly, ‘instead of famine now God gave them plenty,’ Bradford wrote, ‘and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many, for which they blessed God.’ Thereafter, he wrote, ‘any general want or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day.’
Now that sounds a lot more like the Thanksgiving celebration in which we grew up believing.
Thanksgiving was not a set holiday throughout much of the early years of American history. The colonies held a variety of days of fasting and thanksgiving at various times throughout the year.
The first national thanksgiving day wasn’t held until 1777 when the Continental Congress suggested a national day be set aside to recognize the hand of Divine Providence in their quest for independence. Over the next few years, other thanksgiving proclamations were issued for various reasons.
It wasn’t until 1789 that President George Washington issued the proclamation designating a national day of thanks in November. It’s worth noting that, as president, he did not simply impose this proclamation with the stroke of his pen but instead requested the governors of the several states announce and observe the day within their states.
That respect for the authority of state governments is how federalism is supposed to work.
Though subsequent presidents would also issue thanksgiving proclamations, the holiday would not become a permanent annual celebration until Abraham Lincoln made it one in the 1860s.
Note the wording that George Washington used in his first proclamation:
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.
Washington went on to urge the citizens of our nation to render “sincere and humble thanks” to God for His care and protection and “signal and manifold mercies.” He asked that the American people “unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions.”
Note the focus on humble gratitude. Can you imagine the tsunami of outrage and triggered meltdowns that would wash across America if a president – or any political leader, for that matter – were to use such language today?
Our take on Thanksgiving is very different from the kind of introspection, modesty and authentic gratitude shown by those who first instituted the custom. Of course, unlike many of them, few of us have ever really known a time of want or have seen our very existence hang in the balance.
Perhaps this is why an attitude of entitlement permeates nearly every part of our society today.
We may imagine that we are too enlightened or sophisticated to render gratitude to a higher authority than ourselves. But no one in our time has come close to replicating the kind of beneficial result for future generations that wiser and infinitely more grateful founding generations did.
Bryan Hyde is an opinion columnist specializing in current events viewed through what he calls the lens of common sense. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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