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Why Celebrate Thanksgiving?
Note: This website suggests three steps to celebrate Thanksgiving: Do one inspiring activity, say grace, and express what you are grateful for. We have used this plan for our Thanksgiving dinner, and it works so well that everyone says, "That was a great Thanksgiving!" This page presents the original purpose of Thanksgiving stated in the Thanksgiving Proclamations, an intriguing history. For our home page, see the menu choice above for Three Steps for a Great Thanksgiving. This is a new website, and we need your help to spread the word. Thank you!
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Giving thanks to God was the original purpose of Thanksgiving Day. It is still a good idea, because giving thanks strengthens relationship. The Thanksgiving holiday reminds us to give thanks for the good things, people and providential events in our lives. In modern times, the practice of giving thanks has expanded beyond prayer to include gratitude to people and a feeling of gratefulness without identifying the source.
Why did Pres. Washington and Pres. Lincoln proclaim a national holiday to give thanks for God’s blessings? Their writings say it is for God’s “Providence.” Providence is God's kind care and guiding hand in the course of human events. Their proclamations indicate that they believed that God intervened in the history of nations, the benefits of civilized life, and the bounty of the Earth. In Canada, Parliament gave a similar reason for establishing a Thanksgiving holiday, "for the blessings with which the people of Canada have been favoured."
Why did the leaders make Thanksgiving a day off from work, for all citizens to have the opportunity to give thanks to God on the same morning? Because the leaders acknowledged the power of congregational worship, the power of a coordinated expression of a group of minds, as Lincoln wrote, “reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.” In theory, Thanksgiving was a time when the whole society prayed thanks for the same thing. Now it is a time when the whole society eats the same thing. Have we advanced?
The way Thanksgiving used to work in the United States is this: The President and his staff discerned what God had done for the nation that year and described it in an annual proclamation. The proclamation suggested that citizens give thanks for those benefits. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the benefits were obvious, such as winning a battle or having enough food to eat.
A proclamation was issued, not a law, because citizens were not compelled to participate. In this way, the clause preventing the establishment of religion was respected.
Nowadays, the role of God in the life of the nation is not obvious. The annual Thanksgiving presidential proclamations are ignored. The discernment of what to give thanks for now falls to the individual, on each of us, to express gratitude for what we find in our own lives, in our societies, and our world.
For inspiration, you may want to read what Pres. Washington and Pres. Lincoln had to say or the Canadian proclamation. Pres. Washington issued the first national Thanksgiving Proclamation in the United States. Pres. Lincoln established Thanksgiving Day as an annual holiday. Parliament established Thanksgiving as a national holiday in Canada.
In 1789, President George Washington's Proclamation announced the first national Thanksgiving Day in the United States:
BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA -
Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor, and Whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me "to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness –
Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th 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, 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 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.
And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions – to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually – to render our national government a blessing to all the People, by constantly being a government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed – to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord – To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us – and generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.
Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.
An excerpt from President Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation, which established Thanksgiving as an annual holiday in 1863:
"The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. . . . 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 Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens."
In Canada, the purpose of the Canadian national Thanksgiving holiday is made clear in the Parliament's proclamation:
"For general thanksgiving to Almighty God for the blessings with which the people of Canada have been favoured."