Societies throughout time have held some form of harvest festival. The first actual Thanksgiving celebrations seem to have emanated from this practice. America saw autumn Thanksgiving celebrations off and on among various European settler groups, probably beginning in 1565 (see Wikipedia article).
In 1941, Congress permanently set the fourth Thursday in November as a formal Thanksgiving Day holiday. Prior to that time, the executive and/or legislative branch regularly declared such holidays on various days in October, November, or December.
The first formal declaration of a Day of Thanksgiving by the United States government came in 1777. The months prior to this declaration are described by Ira Stoll as “so bleak that there was not much to give thanks for.”
The Revolutionary War was going very badly for the Americans. Battle after battle had been lost. Major cities, including Philadelphia (the national Capital at that time) had fallen to the British, as had New York. The Americans had lost forts, fortifications, weaponry, ammunition, critical supplies, and men (both as casualties and as prisoners). Burgoyne’s Army continued its southward advance, planning to link up with Howe’s Army in New York City, which would cut off New England from the remaining states. Prospects seemed bleak indeed.
Then came the 18-day Battle of Saratoga, where the ragtag Americans succeeded in capturing Burgoyne’s entire army, including weaponry and supplies, much thanks to the heroic efforts of Benedict Arnold, who would later betray the American cause.
Victory at Saratoga so inspired the Americans that they set aside Thursday, December 18 as a day of Thanksgiving to God. The stated purpose was that “with one heart and one voice the good people may express the grateful feelings of their hearts, and consecrate themselves to the service of their divine benefactor.”
Some of those words came from Samuel Adams. Adams supported many subsequent similar declarations. As governor of Massachusetts, he proclaimed Thursday, Nov. 19, 1795 “a day of Public Thanksgiving to God.” He recommended that prayer be offered that God "would graciously be pleased to put an end to all Tyranny and Usurpation, that the People who are under the Yoke of Oppression, may be made free; and that the Nations who are contending for freedom may still be secured by His Almighty Aid.”
Although some derided Adams’ sentiments, this still seems like a very worthy pursuit on Thanksgiving Day this year.
America has always had flaws and will continue to have them. We should actively work to help mend her every flaw. But I believe that what Ronald Reagan said in 1974 is still true, that the USA is today “the last best hope of man on earth.” Despite my gripes about creeping socialism, the USA offers the greatest chance for liberty and opportunity of any nation on the face of the earth today.
One of my greatest blessings is that I was born a citizen of the United States of America. I am grateful to have been raised in this country. Despite my nation’s flaws, I stand proudly and gratefully each time I have an opportunity to salute our nation’s flag.
I have been blessed to live much of my life in a very beautiful area surrounded by inspiring mountains and with easy access to nature. I am grateful to the many throughout time that have sacrificed so that I might enjoy the blessings I enjoy today.
I think my list of blessings could go on nearly infinitely, but I must mention my gratitude for my family. I’m not sure that life would hold much meaning for me without them.
Although there is plenty of bad news around (especially economically) right now, my heart brims with gratitude to God this Thanksgiving season. I pray that I might remember this gratitude throughout the year and demonstrate it in word and action.