By Dr. Peter Breggin
What is Thanksgiving Day really about? Is it a pagan rite, as some say? A celebration of the fall harvest, as historians remind us? A myth of no merit as some cynics suggest? Or, in line with revisionists, is Thanksgiving a day of infamy that should signify the abuse of naively generous Native Americans?
When the Pilgrims met with the Indians to celebrate in the fall of 1621, several traditions came together. The Native American cultures were deeply imbued with the concept of gratitude for everything they received. Sometimes they took a moment to express gratitude to the spirit of an individual deer whom they had killed or to the spirits of the beans, corn and squash that they ate. Giving thanks was thus connected to gratitude for their sources of sustenance. Sometimes they also expressed gratefulness to a greater God who ruled over all.
The European settlers brought together at least two traditions of their own — the ancient harvest festival and the Christian concept of celebrating with gratitude God’s goodness.
In the 1700s, days of thanksgiving were often designated for specific purposes by the colonies and local communities. The common approach to thanksgiving was that of Christian prayer and fasting, rather than partying and over-eating.
By looking at what our most revered presidents have said about the meaning of Thanksgiving, we can get a better idea of the purpose of our national holiday. We will look at what George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt had to say in their Thanksgiving Day Proclamations. These three stand out the top of most lists of our most esteemed American presidents.
The American tradition of celebrating a day of thanksgiving began early in the first term of President George Washington when, at the request of Congress, he issued a Thanksgiving Day Proclamation on October 14, 1789. Washington eloquently declared that Thanksgiving Day was dedicated to “the service of the great and Glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be:”
NOW THEREFORE, I do recommend and assign THURSDAY, the TWENTY-SIXTH DAY of NOVEMBER next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; — for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enable to establish Constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; — for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; — and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.
Was George Washington giving mere lip service to his splendid emphasis on the Glorious Being to whom he said America owed everything? Did the Father of Our Country really intend us to devote a day to God? In my new book, Wow, I’m an American! How to Live Like Our Nation’s Heroic Founders, I document Washington’s profound conviction that Providence or The Invisible Hand was responsible for saving him from failure in the War of Independence and for guiding the whole nation through the successful building of the Republic.
On the same day of October 14 in the year 1863, Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving Day as a national holiday in perpetuity. He cited the blessings of the nation and then warned its citizens not to “forget the source from which they come”:
They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens … 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.
Was Lincoln a hypocrite who would cite God in order to curry votes? Few would think so.
George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are often considered to be our two greatest presidents. Among liberals, Franklin Delano Roosevelt sometimes takes second place after Lincoln with George Washington coming in third.
So what did the creator of the New Deal say about the purpose of Thanksgiving Day? Did he include God in our national celebration? FDR outdid Washington and Lincoln in his affirmation of God by offering a prayer as his Thanksgiving Day Proclamation. On November 9, 1940, FDR prayed with the nation:
Almighty God, who hast given us this good land for our heritage; We humbly beseech Thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of Thy favor and glad to do Thy will. Bless our land with honourable industry, sound learning, and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogancy, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. … In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in Thee to fail; Amen.
Every American is free to celebrate Thanksgiving Day in any and every way possible, from ignoring and ridiculing it to falling asleep on the couch while watching football on television. Many, however, will treat Thanksgiving Day as it was intended by three of our greatest presidents — as a day for expressing gratitude to God for what we have as Americans. For Washington and Lincoln, this meant gratitude for living in a land in which we are, each and every one of us, given the liberty to pursue our own individual lives in a responsible and honorable fashion.
Originally published on The Huffington Post.