When President Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving an official national holiday on Oct. 3, 1863, he hoped it would serve to “heal the wounds of the nation.”
In this year of the COVID-19 pandemic and a particularly divisive election, we sure need a holiday of healing again, though so many of us are missing out on the usual rituals of our cherished annual celebration of food, family and friends. About six in every 10 of us, according to an Axios-Ipsos poll, have altered our Thanksgiving plans because of spikes in the coronavirus.
We have lost more than a quarter-million Americans to a virus that we didn’t even know existed a year ago, yet we have plenty to be thankful for:
For those who are laboring selflessly on the front lines against the pandemic. For those who have kept businesses running and schools going. For those who are caring for each other at great personal risk. For those who bravely conducted a fair election that drew a record turnout despite the pandemic and fierce political headwinds.
We’re even thankful for the remarkable video technology that has allowed us to keep in touch.
But how can we use this day to bridge our divides? A Nov. 13 poll by the Pew Research Center found that “Americans have rarely been as polarized as they are today.”
Perhaps this is a Thanksgiving to remind ourselves to be grateful not just for friends and family, but also for all those who share this land with us. Perhaps it’s a day to look past our differences with our fellow Americans and understand that we are more alike than different.
Hard to believe, we know, given how that presidential election shook out. But we are more as a people than our politics.
It has not been an easy year. But no year is ever easy, not for everybody, once you look past the comforting reassurances of the winners who write the history books. Thanksgiving Day, like the sentiments underpinning the holiday, has always been a work in progress, its significance and customs evolving over the years. The holiday has been a matter of continual reconsideration since even before a crusading journalist, Sarah Josepha Hale, persuaded Lincoln to issue his Thanksgiving Day proclamation, which came 74 years after President George Washington declared a day of thanksgiving and prayer.
Part of the point of the day for Washington was to honor the new U.S. Constitution.
It its earliest days, some American complained that the new holiday was trying to go into competition with Christmas. Henry A. Wise, the governor of Virginia from 1856 to 1860 — a state which considered itself the true cradle of the American nation — called Thanksgiving, with its New England overtones, “theatrical national claptrap.”
Before the Civil War, many Americans in the South considered Thanksgiving a Yankee holiday they did not care to celebrate. At times, various states set different dates for the holiday, sometimes based on whether they were run by Republicans or Democrats, causing needless confusion and making it hard for college students to go home for the holiday in a different state.
It wasn’t until the 1900s that the holiday became popular across the country.
In more recent decades, we have had to rethink the ahistorical lore of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag, who gave the Pilgrims food to get through the winter, harmoniously sharing a harvest feast. Somehow — with those victors again writing the story — the continental carnage that followed was left out of the story.
Kids once dressed up as Pilgrims in school pageants. You don’t see that as much anymore and understandably so. Those dollar-store “Indian” feathers and big buckles on shoes have gone out of fashion.
Instead, we eat. Americans eat more on Thanksgiving than any other day of the years. And we have, over the many years, settled on a collection staples, including turkey, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie, that in itself suggests a kind of national unity.
Thanksgiving is all about family, friends and e pluribus munchum.
Even in a hard year when many of our holiday gatherings will be only virtual, we can expand this message of unity, pulling in everyone we know and meet.
Let us heal the wounds of our nation.
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