Thanksgiving Day, as we know it now, did not originate with the Pilgrims, though we have through the years romanticized that connection. It is a good story and worthy of romanticizing. Native Americans welcomed and helped the first refugees (Pilgrims) who came to these shores in 1620. Without this aid the Pilgrims would not have survived their first winter. There was no Statue of Liberty then, nor had the words now inscribed on the statue been written. Even so, 91 Native Americans, by their actions, seemed to say:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,
Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
The Pilgrims invited the gracious Wampanoag to join them in a celebration of thanksgiving—a feast that lasted for three days in the autumn of 1621.
While there were occasional thanksgiving celebrations dating back to the early days in Virginia and Massachusetts, there was no established tradition, nor were these by any means national celebrations. It was only in 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln inaugurated Thanksgiving as we know it now, and this has been continued by all presidents to the present time.
The first National Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1863 suggested that the people focus on “the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.” The people are called, in this Proclamation, not only to give thanks for “singular deliverances and blessings,” but also to “humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience.” It asks the people to “commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”
Our National Thanksgiving tomorrow should include “humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience,” as well as giving thanks for “singular deliverances and blessings.” Our thanksgiving prayers should include our fervent imploring for “the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.” Our Thanksgiving tradition must include the Proclamation of 1863 just as it does the Pilgrim feast of 1621.