Although many people associate Thanksgiving with food and plenty, it is really a day of charity that has nothing to do with feasting. Instead, our true national Thanksgiving was created by Abraham Lincoln as a call to caring for one another during the dark years of the Civil War.
For the past few decades, we have been taught a myth about Pilgrims and dinner as if they were the first to ever have a meal or to give praise. Instead, the activity they indulged in, be it eating, praying, or a combination, was standard, common, and nothing special. The myth was a revisionism of history that directly obfuscated the original purpose to have the national holiday.
The Pilgrim “thanksgiving” was more associated with celebrating conquest than actual giving thanks. Not only was the Pilgrim feasting actually a type of Oktoberfest, it more often honored bloodshed, like the massacre of the Pequot, than anything that could be considered giving thanks to God.
Many attack Thanksgiving now because of the Pilgrims, but the real Thanksgiving was truly about God and about doing what is right. In 1863 with America in the middle of the Civil War, Lincoln unified various local celebrations into one day in which Americans would give thanks for everything they had. This was not a call to celebrate but to reflect. This was not a time to indulge but to give back.
Most presidents starting with George Washington celebrated at least some version of a day for thanksgiving and gave credit to God for the good things Americans enjoy, but they were all local and minor in scope. Instead, Lincoln wanted to show that there was one American idea that was a beacon of hope in a time of darkness.
To this point, Lincoln began his proclamation by being upfront Civil War was a grave evil. However, he made it clear that all should be glad that “harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict.” He then continued with a listing of other benefits that the nation has received before declaring, “They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”
This focus on sin at both a national and individual level shows that this is not a day of celebrating, or partying, or excess. Instead, it is a day for repentance.
Thus, Thanksgiving is to be praying to God and “with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged.”
This last part is a call to charity, both spiritual and material. Through prayer and action, we are called to give back to those without on Thanksgiving to make amends for our own sins and to truly show thanks for the goods we have received. Thus, we should reclaim Thanksgiving as a time to continue this tradition by helping those who are suffering. That is the only way to truly show thanks.
Jeffrey Peters, a graduate of Catholic University with a doctorate, attends St. Bartholomew Roman Catholic Church in Manchester. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.