Blame it on the annual turkey coma, but when my 3 year old asked earlier this month, “What’s Thanksgiving,” I was surprised to find myself caught off guard and grappling for an answer.
As I jumbled together a story about Pilgrims, a boat ride and dinner with Indians, my mind was spinning in circles trying to recall the accurate historical facts and some sort of explanation for why the commemoration of this event has evolved into such a prominent national holiday. Frankly, it was all a haze of preschool plays, Peanuts cartoons, Pepperidge Farm stuffing and Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parades.
In a method to which my journalism school mentors would wholly object, I scoured Wikipedia, the History Channel online and the Smithsonian Institute website and pieced together a summary of Thanksgiving’s history in North America, a report I’m sure would have earned me an A+ in my 10th grade U.S. history class.
But even with an accurate account of the notorious 1621 feast hosted by the Pilgrims at Plymouth, I was still left wondering what meaning one should place on the modern day holiday… particularly because my research turned up a less-than-tidy history of thanksgiving celebrations in our country.
For starters, the Pilgrims’ meal has been unquestionably overturned as the first Thanksgiving in America. Historical research has uncovered evidence of thanksgiving church services conducted by the Spanish in Florida as early as 1565, as well as other days of thanksgiving in Popham Colony in Maine in 1607; in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607 and 1610; and Berkeley Hundred in Charles City County, Virginia, in 1619.
So even if most modern-day Americans imagine that our Thanksgiving Day commemorates the anniversary of the nation’s first thanksgiving, that assumption is inaccurate.
Furthermore, the thanksgiving celebrations that followed the 1621 feast were sporadic, rather than a consistent annual tradition, and the causes that prompted them widely varied. The Pilgrims’ second thanksgiving celebration took place in 1623 to mark the end of a long drought. While fasting and thanksgiving became a more common practice in New England’s settlements, it wasn’t until 1789 that George Washington issued the first thanksgiving proclamation by the United States government. That occasion was designated to celebrate the end of the country’s war for independence and the successful ratification of the U.S. Constitution.
Even then, thanksgiving did not become an annual national holiday. Each state individually called for days of thanksgiving whenever they saw fit. It took a 36-year-long crusade by a writer named Sarah Josepha Hale to officially put Thanksgiving on the calendar. Hale published numerous editorials and sent countless letters to five consecutive U.S. Presidents, urging them to unify the nation in a single celebration of thanksgiving.
In the midst of the Civil War, Hale’s call struck a chord with President Abraham Lincoln. In his 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation, Lincoln set the holiday as the final Thursday in November and called on his divided country to “fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand 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.”
As evident in Lincoln’s words, Thanksgiving had evolved into a day in which Christians took the opportunity to thank God for their many blessings, a tradition that continues today. But the roots of the thanksgiving tradition are secular, spanning cultures, continents and millennia. The holiday’s foundation is as a harvest festival, celebrated in ancient times by the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans and by Native Americans for thousands of years before the Mayflower arrived. In fact, the Pilgrims’ own feast was non-religious, aside from saying grace, due to their puritanical rejection of public religious displays.
And sadly, the finalization of the holiday’s date has more to do with the notorious post-Thanksgiving shopping. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week to the fourth Thursday in November (rather than the last) in hopes of encouraging earlier holiday shopping during the Great Depression.
In summary, I think it’s clear Thanksgiving is neither an anniversary of a first thanksgiving nor a Church-initiated holiday. And while there are many that get giddy over a masterful Black Friday shopping plan, the idea of Thanksgiving simply marking the start of the holiday season stands in direct contradiction to very definition of thanksgiving – expressing gratitude for what one already has.
Gratitude, it seems, may be the only consistency in our nation’s complex history of thanksgiving celebrations. And while dramatic re-imaginings of the Pilgrim’s meal may fascinate schoolchildren and make for great picture books, it’s in the simple but intentional expression of gratitude that I’ve rediscovered the “point” of Thanksgiving. Whether directed toward God or simply celebrated within one’s own soul, giving thanks achieves what Sarah Josepha Hale intended for the holiday she championed:
“There is a deep moral influence in these periodical seasons of rejoicing, in which whole communities participate. They bring out…the best sympathies in our natures.”
And there’s no one who practices thanksgiving quite as well as children’s book creator Dallas Clayton, author and illustrator of the “An Awesome Book of Thanks.” Clayton writes:
There didn’t use to be boats.
There didn’t use to be cars.
There didn’t use to be people.
There didn’t use to be stars.
There didn’t use to be anything.
But now there’s a lot, so when I look around at all that we’ve got
I say, “Thank You.”
Without a turkey, pilgrim or Indian in sight, Clayton has distilled the essence of Thanksgiving. Sure, he gives thanks for the familiar, those things we typically think of when saying Thanksgiving grace:
But he also gives thanks for the silly and obscure, a viewpoint my daughters enjoy. Each night we say this simple mealtime prayer: “God is good. God is great. Let us thank Him for our food.” Afterward, we spend a few minutes naming all the other things for which we’re thankful. Charlotte, our 2-year-old, always shouts out “Blankie” before anyone else can get a word in. She’s the Linus type. Eloise, who’s 3, amuses herself by naming unexpected things like frogs and books and rocks. Clayton is of the same mind, opening the reader’s eyes (whether child or adult) to all the simple things that make life so much nicer, things like tape dispensers, toothbrushes and toilet paper (and who would want to imagine life without toilet paper?!).
“It’s so easy – we see these things every day – to forget to say thank you in every way.”
“An Awesome Book of Thanks” is Clayton’s sophomore project. His 2008 debut in children’s literature was “An Awesome Book,” a project he conceived to encourage the imaginative and unrestrained dreams of his son. Clayton has harnessed those dreams in this book, as well, giving thanks for the fantastical imaginings of a child: girelephants, gigantic dinomachines, basketball-wizards, and kind-hearted sea monsters.
Clayton also touches on intangible concepts that may some day sink in for younger readers but certainly resonate with adults: “having all the times it takes,” “patience and hopes and rewards and revisions” and “finishing last because first isn’t always the best place to be.”
As our family prepares for Thanksgiving, Clayton’s book has inspired what I hope will become a long-lasting tradition that gives definition to a holiday with undefined or inaccurate parameters. This year, when we sit down to a dinner with loved ones, we’ll all take part in the creation of our own book of thanks. In a fashion similar to Clayton’s marker doodlings, we’ll put to paper the things for which we’re grateful. Blankies and frogs and princess outfits will likely make the list, but so too will my gratitude for finally reaching the stage at which my toddler girls will play peacefully for an hour in the basement without intervention.
And here’s one more reason to give thanks for “An Awesome Book of Thanks:” it and its predecessor (“An Awesome Book”) are available in their entirety at veryawesomeworld.com, the website for Clayton’s Awesome World Foundation. For every book the foundation sells, Clayton donates one to a school, hospital, library, camp or shelter somewhere in the world in an effort to not only promote literacy but also spread his messages of big dreams and gratitude.