As we approach a Thanksgiving that feels different than any other, stories of America’s history offer a prism through which to see our shared future.
From our very founding, we’ve always been a diverse and divided nation, a place where difference is both celebrated and rebuked. Wherever you find yourself in this moment, you likely agree that America is facing a historic moment—a portal moment—of division, decision, crisis, and change.
Four hundred years ago, 102 Puritan Pilgrims set sail from England for the New World, signing among them the Mayflower Compact: a declaration of democratic intent, cementing their dedication to their collective purpose and to each other.
…solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God, and one another; covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic...
Many argue that this commitment of mutuality and self-governance enabled the Pilgrims to survive that perilous voyage.
Their challenges, however, were far from over. Only the kindness and generosity of the native Wampanoag tribe allowed the Pilgrims to weather their first fierce winter on the coast of Cape Cod. By spring, half their number were dead. And yet, from collective grief, gratitude and graciousness emerged. That fall, some fifty Pilgrims joined with their native hosts in a three-day feast, our first Thanksgiving.
Of course, we should not fool ourselves into believing that one gathering was enough to bring about unity. This simplified version of our history obscures the whole story. While retelling this tale before tables adorned with multi-colored handmade construction paper turkeys, we often paper over the difficulties and perspective of the Wampanoag tribe whose lives and future were radically, horrifically changed when gratitude and graciousness later gave way to power and domination. (For Wampanoag people today, Thanksgiving is both a day of mourning as well as a celebration of their people’s resiliency in the face of such atrocity.)
Our origin story offers immense opportunity for empathy and perspective-taking—which we must do—and yet, there is another layer to our Thanksgiving history that I’d like to add here. I recently learned it wasn’t until almost 250 years later that our Thanksgiving tradition was enshrined as a national holiday.
In the summer of 1863, the Union and Confederate Armies faced off at Gettysburg in the Civil War’s most brutal and decisive battle. In three days, more than 7,000 men died, among a combined 50,000 casualties. Then too, the country suffered immense collective grief. Three months later, Abraham Lincoln called for a national day of Thanksgiving:
I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States...to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving...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, tranquility and Union.
Every recounting of history offers another perspective. This national holiday to heal the wounds of the nation was not Lincoln’s idea; Sarah Josepha Hale made it her life’s work (in addition to writing “Mary had a little lamb” and advocating for women’s education) to lobby state and federal agencies to establish a fixed, national day—an annual, communal ritual—of giving thanks. Hale firmly believed that it was essential for all of us to pause and come together to move our divided country from collective grief into a place of gratitude, connection, and belonging.
Lincoln agreed. Six weeks later, he traveled to Gettysburg to deliver his famous address, one week before the first Thanksgiving:
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
While Lincoln’s invocation is often framed as a call to civic action and a reminder of the power of our democracy, memory obscures the connection between the Thanksgiving holiday and the Gettysburg Address. Thanksgiving is so much more (and so much more complicated) than how Normal Rockwell portrayed it. Yet, as we again approach the last Thursday of November, we must acknowledge the swelling of collective grief that again permeates every facet of our lives....
As the number of Americans getting sick and many dying from COVID-19 is growing by the day...
As we process the vitriol surrounding a historic national election revealing deep, unwavering political divisions...
As we reckon with our legacy of slavery and racial segregation that has nurtured a culture disproportionately marginalizing and mistreating people of color...
As we move into a holiday—an American tradition—centered on family and connection which this year the CDC recommends we observe at a physical distance from those we love...
Perhaps Thanksgiving again offers us a moment to pause. To breathe. To hold that uncomfortable space as we honor our collective grief that each of us is experiencing in our own way, yet we all have in common. When we recognize and appreciate our individual and communal pain, we rekindle our shared humanity and find renewed commitment to each other.
Inspired by this history and this portal moment we find ourselves in, my Thanksgiving blessing is this:
May this Thanksgiving remind us to face our history together, to look at ourselves today, and dedicate ourselves, with increased devotion, to collectively take on our unfinished work.
May we rediscover our common humanity by connecting to those with whom we traditionally share this sacred meal, and push ourselves to widen our circle of concern to those who have yet to join our table in order to heal the wounds of the nation.
May we combine ourselves together, knowing that mutuality and self-governance is essential if we are to truly become a nation of the people, by the people, for the people.
May we move from our collective grief into gratitude and thanks-giving, by seeking joy, love, graciousness, and a new birth of freedom even in the small and mundane as well as the hard and challenging; it’s there in sacred abundance if we take the time to look and see.
May this day remind us of the importance of ritual and our founding ideals; may we offer the last full measure of devotion to pursue meaning, purpose, and connection (even at a physical distance) each and every day, as a way to nurture our souls, the soul of our nation, and to find the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.