As the Civil War raged in the fall of 1863, President Abraham Lincoln invited citizens to observe “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
People had been giving thanks on American soil since long before we were a country, but Lincoln’s proclamation started the observance of the last Thursday in November as a national day of gratitude.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt later sought to boost retail sales by moving Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday in November, where it remains.
We’re a nation of firsts, so it might not come as a surprise that several states claim the first Thanksgiving. Texas contends the Feast of the First Thanksgiving was in May 1541 at Palo Duro Canyon near what’s now Amarillo, according to the Library of Congress.
A couple of decades later, French Huguenots gave praise and thanks near Jacksonville, Fla. English colonists sat down with Native Americans for prayer by the Kennebec River in Maine in August 1607.
Virginia marks the first English Thanksgiving when Colonists offered prayers for a safe arrival in 1619, two years before Pilgrims in Massachusetts had their three-day feast with Native Americans in 1621.
Thanksgiving is more secular now. Most of us pray less and eat and shop more. But we still need a day to pause, reflect and count our blessings — especially now.
A majority of Americans believe the country’s political, racial and class divisions are so severe the United States is two-thirds of the way to the “edge of civil war,” Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service Battleground Civility Poll reported last month.
Republicans blame Democratic political leaders, social media, large newspapers, CNN and MSNBC, while Democrats blame Republican political leaders, social media, Fox News, wealthy special interests and President Donald Trump, the poll found. Independents mostly blame social media and Trump, the poll said.
It also showed we’re conflicted. Nearly everyone wants more compromise in Washington, but at the same time, we want our own political leaders to stand up to the other side. That’s a recipe for continued strife, not harmony.
Other recent polls show we’re angry when we check the news, angry at a political system that seems to work only for insiders with money and power, like those on Wall Street and in Washington; and angrier than we were a generation or even five years ago. That’s a lot of angry.
This Thanksgiving brings a welcome time-out from televised impeachment hearings and other news stories that provoke us. It’s hard to muster gratitude when you feel like throwing something at the TV or bashing the phone screen that brings the latest news outrage.
We can declare the Thanksgiving dinner table a politics-free zone. Let us savor family and friends and pass the turkey without commenting on the turkeys in Washington.
Or, let us open a couple of beers. Samuel Adams’s new ad suggests drinkers “Toast Someone” who has made a significant impact on their life. The ad shows several popular comedians toasting and thanking someone who made a difference.
It’s a clever idea, because people are notoriously awkward when they try to put their thanks into words. And yet, decades of research show that people who are grateful and express their gratitude are happier and healthier than others.
In one study, participants were assigned to write and deliver a letter of gratitude to someone they’d not properly thanked. Those who did “immediately exhibited greater happiness,” the Harvard Mental Health Letter reported.
Such studies cannot prove cause and effect, and not all studies show people feeling better about their lives through gratitude. Children and adolescents who wrote and delivered letters of gratitude didn’t feel better about themselves, but the recipients probably did.
The Harvard newsletter summarizes the power of gratitude this way: “Gratitude helps people refocus on what they have instead of what they lack. And, although it may feel contrived at first, this mental state grows stronger with use and practice.”
Gratitude also “helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals — whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.”
In these toxic times, we could all do with stronger connections to other people, nature or a higher power. Happy Thanksgiving.