Inside: A selection of Thanksgiving writings . . . The woman who started a tradition, Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation, cultivating thankfulness, and the origin of our Thanksgiving menu.
Thanksgiving is my second favorite holiday (second only to Christmas, that is). To celebrate the occasion, I’ve put together several different selections of writings. So grab a piece of pumpkin pie with a big dollop of whip cream and enjoy the read.
The Woman Who Started a Tradition
“Sarah Josepha Hale, a 74-year-old magazine editor, wrote a letter to Lincoln on September 28, 1863, urging him to have the ‘day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival.’ She explained, ‘You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritive fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.’
“Prior to this, each state scheduled its own Thanksgiving holiday at different times, mainly in New England and other Northern states. President Lincoln responded to Mrs. Hale’s request immediately, unlike several of his predecessors, who ignored her petitions altogether. In her letter to Lincoln she mentioned that she had been advocating a national thanksgiving date for 15 years as the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book. George Washington was the first president to proclaim a day of thanksgiving, issuing his request on October 3, 1789, exactly 74 years before Lincoln’s.”
Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation
Part prayer, part proclamation, what I find remarkable about Lincoln’s writings is that he could find the blessings in the midst of a civil war which was tearing our country apart. It is beautiful to read.
October 3, 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. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled 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. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. 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 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. 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, tranquillity and Union.”
Confession time: I’ve never been great at keeping a journal. Just not my thing, even though I am a writer. But for more than a year and a half I’ve been keeping a gratitude journal.
I started out doing something called the examen which had its roots in The Spiritual Exercises by St. Ignatius. The gist of it is that at the end of the day, you write down the moment you are most grateful for as well as the moment you are least grateful for. The former cultivates gratitude, the latter awareness of possible patterns in life and areas that might need to be addressed.
After six months of doing the examen, I decided to change the way I spent those few moments in reflection. I simply wrote down what I was grateful for that day. Not that I ignored the bad or pretended it didn’t exist, just that I chose to focus on the positive.
What I have noticed from this little daily exercise is that slowly but surely, it is shaping my perspective. I am more optimistic. I am more content. I complain less. I am more in tune with the hundreds of blessings all around me in my day-to-day existence. I am more careful to choose my words because I truly believe they direct the course of my life.
Keeping a gratitude journal need not be difficult. First, choose a journal that you like. (Mine is pictured above with my favorite coffee mug.) My friend Patty bought me this beautiful leather-bound journal with a tree embossed on the cover and a bead and leather strap to secure it. I love the way it looks. It’s so me.
Next, decide how you will go about keeping your gratitude journal. Maybe you like the idea of the examen or simply jotting down something you are thankful for every day, as I do. Or maybe the thought of doing this daily feels like one more thing on your to-do list. Setting aside some time once a week might work better for you, then. Whatever you decide, I would suggest that you don’t beat yourself up over any missed days. It’s not about leaving a perfect record for every day or choosing a specific number of items you will list. The point of this practice is to change your attitude. Perfection has nothing to do with it.
Finally, choose a time of day that best works for you. Typically I will review the previous day the following morning, though not always. If something that morning occurs to me, I write it down. I have no set amount of items to list. Often I do about three, but I have listed anywhere from one to half a dozen. There are no rules, unless you make them.
Try it for yourself. You might be pleasantly surprised by your changed outlook!
What Did They Eat at the First Thanksgiving?
From Edward Winslow, an English leader attending the harvest gathering of 1621, we learn:
“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.”
William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth, mentions this in his accounts: “And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion.”
So Where Does Our Modern Menu Come From?
Again we turn to Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, who had been publishing recipes for Thanksgiving in preparation for a national holiday she helped to make happen. By the time Lincoln made his proclamation, a nation of women were making such dishes as sage dressing and mashed potatoes, which were considered exotic then.
As I walked home from the farm after feeding the chickens tonight, sun setting behind me, it struck me how still, peaceful it was outside. This year Mike and I celebrated a quiet Thanksgiving, and that suited us. Tomorrow we gather with family and do a Friday Thanksgiving meal down in St. Louis. For now I’m enjoying the close of day, kitty curled up on my lap, and a genuine feeling of gratitude for the abundant simple gifts I’ve been given.
I am truly blessed.
Happy Thanksgiving, Friends!