A day for thanks

Nov. 27, 2013 @ 05:10 PM

In 1789, the young United States had a great deal for which to be thankful, its first president noted.

In the first proclamation of a national day of Thanksgiving, a proclamation called for by the first session of Congress, George Washington marshaled his characteristic eloquence and invoked as was customary at the time a divine God.

He called on the nation to offer "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 which we experienced 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 enabled 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 He blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us."

Seventy-four years later, President Abraham Lincoln found reasons to be thankful in the midst of the nation's bloodiest, bitterest war. In the proclamation that first established the fourth Thursday of November as our national Thanksgiving Day, Lincoln in October 1863 wrote:

"In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union."

In the generations since, Thanksgiving has taken on any number of meanings. It is for most people a respite from work for a day -- and for many the portal to a long weekend. It is enjoying -- or enduring -- family gatherings centered on a bountiful dinner. It may be a day to watch a parade or a football game. Increasingly, it is a day to get a running head start on what used to be the Black Friday unofficial opening of the serious holiday shopping season.

That it can be some or all of those things to so many people is in itself a reminder of the general peace and -- certainly in contrast to much of the world -- relative prosperity we enjoy.

But as we go about our holiday rituals new and old, let's be sure to pause at some point and think about what we have to be thankful for.

If Washington at the nation's birth and Lincoln at its rebirth could find ample reasons, we surely can today.