Thanksgiving: Singular Deliverances and Blessings
I don't think of Thanksgiving as a group of spectral Native-Americans emerging from the mists of a New England wood to share their bounty with a group of religious refugees wearing buckles on their hats. That might be an effective tool for an engaging kindergarten class activity, but it isn't for me.
And while Washington, Adams, and Madison used the powers of the presidency to proclaim a day to give thanks, Thanksgiving, for me, does not begin until 1863 at the height of The Civil War and in the aftermath of the apocalyptic Gettysburg.
Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a November celebration on October 3rd, 74 years to the day that Washington had in 1789. He did it in Harper's Magazine:
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 in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea, and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Prayer to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, 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.
Just a few months earlier, General Robert E. Lee had come so close to rendering the conflict a bloody stalemate, and were it not for the tactical genius of Joshua Chamberlain, the counterfactuals become infinite for a different outcome in the presidential election of 1864, a permanently divided nation in the future, and the cause of individual freedom set back a hundred years.
Lincoln knew how close the country had come to extermination and his proclamation sighs with providential relief. He was aware many hard days lay ahead but believed his countrymen were entitled to at least a day's taste of what would be theirs when the terrible conflict came to an end.
We have celebrated the day ever since. Go back and read his words, and you will see Lincoln's acute awareness of so many Americans being away from home. Men and women who had never left the farm. the town, or the city from which they were born found themselves further from those places than they ever imagined possible. The President's proclamation creates a space where the citizen can imagine themselves home. For many, it is home that is the more perfect union.
Thanksgiving is a homecoming, a welcome home, and a renewal of the ties that bind us all contained in one table sitting. I have always loved the holiday, but my time for Radio Nemo of North America has amplified my affection for the institution. Talking with those who spend so much time away from those they love has sharpened my understanding of its importance. My own responsibilities to travel across the country have reminded me how we feel, even in this age of connectivity, when we cannot see a light in the distance that lets us know someone is waiting for us.
With his own particular sense of grief, Lincoln also knew that so many of the celebrations he had set into motion would come with empty seats at the table, empty chairs by the fire, and empty graves at the family plot. I think of the stinging loss of veterans like Scott DeLuzio, those broken souls just out of the reach of the heroic efforts of The Joshua Chamberlain Society, and, of course, the journey to Arlington of Wreaths Across America. They all remind me that the thanks we give is often tempered with an inconceivable absence.
But the better angels of my nature hold on to the belief that while many will never be coming home to us, through the great grace of providence, there will be a time that we come home to them.