I have over the years become something of a connoisseur (if I’m permitted to use such a French word for such an American thing) of presidential Thanksgiving proclamations . My reason for an interest in a thing so potentially banal (and trust me, some of the proclamations are beyond banal)? Consider the place of Thanksgiving in the panoply of official American holidays. Some, like Easter and Christmas, amount to a public accommodation of an essentially religious calendar. Others, like Independence Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Veteran’s Day and so on, are purely civic. They celebrate or commemorate events or people in American history or society. Then there’s Thanksgiving, which is a politically created holiday with an explciitly religious theme, however much some presidents have sought to avoid it and however much some of us lose sight of the One to Whom we are thankful.
Dwell, for a moment, on the opening paragraphs of George Washington’s first proclamation of Thanksgiving:
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 tranquillity, 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.
Or think about these words from Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation, which inaugurated the succession of proclamations, unbroken to this day:
The year that is drawing toward 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 can not 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 unequaled 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 theater of military conflict, while that theater 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 defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax 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 battlefield, 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.
I haven’t yet seen this year’s presidential proclamation (he’s leaving it until the last minute, no?), but continue to hope that it’s an improvement over last year’s, which (I argued at the time) was:
almost an alternative reading of the meaning of Thanksgiving. Itss a tradition that binds us together while still acknowledging our diversity. In this narrative, giving thanks to God may have a traditional place, but that’s situated in the past. What matters is how we’ve used that story to come together as a people. Thanksgiving is then like what Christmas has become (for some): a cultural event that has grown beyond its religious roots, with meaning built (through accretion) by the practices of generations. A visit to the mall Santa, presents under the tree, and the holiday blockbuster movie (in which it inevitably snows) take their places alongside the live nativity scene, the Christmas Eve service, and the midnight Mass as markers of the season.
Let us remember what we’re thankful for, and to Whom. And if the President’s proclamation writers botch the job, let’s also be thankful for a rich trove of public reflections from which our own thoughts can draw some sustenance.
UPDATE: Here’s this year’s proclamation, which is a vast improvement over last year’s, though it still exhibits a slight tendency to regard the giving of thanks as merely a cultural tradition. But I’ll happily join the President and my fellow Americans in lifting “up our hearts in gratitude to God for our many blessings, for one another, and for our Nation.”
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