Celebrating centuries of giving thanks

The observance of a formally designated day of Thanksgiving originated in America, although regions and cultures all over the world have long observed their own traditions of expressing gratitude for the bounty of life. Essentially harvest-related in their natural form, Thanksgiving activities around the world promote communal harmony and the practice of giving thanks with customs unique to the respective regions. While each culture has its folklore attached to it, harmony, peace, and feeling gratitude is the underlying theme of celebrations the world over.

The first official proclamation in the U.S. was issued by President George Washington in the fall of 1789, as the new president was settling into his newly-created role as head of a newly-established country, and more than a century and a half after the legendary harvest feast between settlers and natives took place at Plymouth Plantation in 1621. Under Washington’s directive, November 26 was declared as “A Day of Publik Thanksgiving and Prayer,” and was to be observed “by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God.”

Decades later Abraham Lincoln chose to remind a war-ravaged nation to renew the concept of Thanksgiving in an 1863 proclamation:

“The year that is drawing towards its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies,” Lincoln wrote, despite the unremitting misery and devastation of the Civil War. Lincoln’s document goes on to identify the last Thursday of November “as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise,” with particular compassion extended to those “widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged.”

Years later another president, in a very different America, formally addressed the “day of general thanksgiving” and amended it to be observed on the 3rd Thursday in November. Franklin D. Roosevelt, president of a nation steeped in the economic deprivation of the Great Depression, in 1939 moved the holiday up a week to hopefully stimulate commerce with an extended Christmas (buying) season. Two years later, due to public protest, Roosevelt changed the holiday again to the fourth Thursday in November, where it is observed in the US today.

The turn of the 21st century marked a global effort in international unity, as the United Nations proposed Thanksgiving for its customary International Year designation, creating the “International Year of Thanksgiving 2000.” In his address to the Assembly on December 13, 1999, UN General Assembly President Theo-Ben Gurirab (Namibia) delivered words that could serve well into the century and beyond:

“Standing here under the faces of the peoples of the world in prayer and Thanksgiving, we are reminded of the many challenges still facing us in the world—intolerance, wars, poverty and brutality against children. It is my special wish that the power and compassion of Thanksgiving will guide us in a special way in 2000: The ‘International Year of Thanksgiving.’ We can concentrate on what unites us and make it the Thankful Century.”

We wish you a safe and happy Thanksgiving, wherever you are and however you express your gratitude.