2020 has proven to be one of the most challenging years in recent memory. The coronavirus has impacted our lives in many ways, from the profound loss of loved ones and the pain of a job loss to the simple inconvenience of wearing a mask. As we celebrate Thanksgiving during this unusual year, our festivities are going to look very different. But it has always been a most American trait that we find a way to express our gratitude despite infestations, depressions, wars and privations.
The first recorded Thanksgiving celebration by the new nation took place in 1777. The American army under General Washington was in dire straits, but had secured a victory over the British General Burgoyne at Saratoga, New York. The Continental Congress had been chased out of Philadelphia when the British occupied the city and had taken up temporary residence in York, Pennsylvania. Yet despite the gloom, Congress issued a proclamation from exile declaring a day of Thanksgiving “to set apart Thursday, the eighteenth Day of December next, for SOLEMN THANKSGIVING and PRAISE: that at one Time and with one Voice, the good People may express the grateful Feelings of their Hearts…” Characteristically, America celebrated her first Thanksgiving during a time of great peril.
Beginning with Washington in 1789, various Presidents and Governors issued sporadic Thanksgiving proclamations, but it fell to Abraham Lincoln to establish the celebration as a national holiday. During October of 1863, in the depths of the American Civil War, President Lincoln again called on Americans “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 Prayer…” Many private aid organizations including the US Sanitary Commission raised funds to provide Thanksgiving dinner to as many troops in the field as possible.
Woodrow Wilson issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1917 in the midst World War I. To aid the war effort, Americans were being asked by the head of the Food Administration, Herbert Hoover, to limit consumption of meat, sugar and wheat (a campaign which soon garnered the moniker “Hooverizing”). Despite the privations, President Wilson affirmed the tradition and enjoined Americans to celebrate their blessings: “That custom we can follow now even in the midst of the tragedy of a world shaken by war and immeasurable disaster, in the midst of sorrow and great peril, because even amidst the darkness that has gathered about us we can see the great blessings God has bestowed upon us, blessings that are better than mere peace of mind and prosperity of enterprise.”
While most US Presidents followed the precedent of declaring a National Day of Thanksgiving, it fell to Franklin Roosevelt to establish a permanent holiday. In 1941, amidst the darkening clouds of war and America’s inevitable entry therein, the President established the 4th Thursday of November as the official celebration as it stands today. Two years later, as the war raged on and Americans were called to sacrifice at home and abroad, Roosevelt’s proclamation read in part: “For all these things we are devoutly thankful, knowing also that so great mercies exact from us the greatest measure of sacrifice and service.” Meanwhile, two Liberty Ships loaded to the gunwales with turkey and all the trimmings were steaming across the Atlantic to fete our troops in the field.
Thanksgiving 2020 will likewise be remembered as an American celebration in the midst of peril. Our foe this time is not Colonialism or Fascism but an unseen enemy, the defeat of which likewise calls for united sacrifice and service. Our celebrations will look very different this year, but there is hope on the horizon and as always ample reason to give thanks for being Americans.
Christopher A. Hopkins, CFA