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Opinion: We've forgotten the origins of Thanksgiving

Michael Warren

Detroit is clearly Thanksgiving City. We have a wondrous Turkey Trot, an outstanding parade, Santa’s visit, and then Detroit Lions football! Our stomachs expand with turkey and stuffing. In the afterglow, we spend like crazy on Black Friday and Cyber Monday. What more could you need?

THANKS-GIVING, (n.) a day intended for gratitude, humility, and blessings which has been swamped by crass consumerism and 24/7 entertainment culture.

We all have an elementary level understanding of the Pilgrims and Native Americans having a feast, but it is quite a bit deeper. Religious dissenters from the Church of England settled in Plymouth in 1620. They made history by establishing an asylum from religious persecution and swearing to the Mayflower Compact — quite possibly the first written agreement among men to form a new government.

Thanksgiving Day has been swamped by crass consumerism and 24/7 entertainment culture, Warren writes.

They were quickly struck with the “great sickness” and began to starve. In a year, almost half of the 102 died. But with the assistance of Wampanoag Native Americans — especially Samoset and Squanto — they survived and then flourished. They hosted a huge three-day feast with Native Americans, but it was not considered a “thanksgiving” by the Pilgrims. That came in 1623 when the Pilgrims were suffering a brutal drought.

Governor William Bradford led the people in fervent prayer to the Creator for relief. Before the prayers, the sky was cloudless and sunny. In a few hours, the heavens opened with the perfect rain, and they were saved. Bradford declared a day of thanksgiving, including a large feast, expressing profound gratitude to the Almighty.

Afterward, colonial governors sporadically proclaimed days of thanksgiving to the Supreme Being in response to specific fortuitous events and conditions. The first continental wide celebration waited until 1777, when the Continental Congress declared a Thanksgiving for the vital victory at the Battle of Saratoga. Others followed.

Congress asked President George Washington to declare a thanksgiving for the amazing accomplishments of the first Congress, including the Bill of Rights and setting up a functioning federal government. Washington declared a thanksgiving for the last Thursday in November. He urged the people to devote the day “to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all that good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may all unite in rendering Him our sincere and humble thanks for his Kind care and protection ...  for the signal and manifold mercies and favorable interpositions of His providence” during the American Revolution, establishing the federal Constitution, and protecting the “civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed.”

Presidents Adams and Madison followed suit — but the rest punted until 1863, when Sarah Josepha Hale convinced President Lincoln to declare Thanksgiving during the Civil War. Despite the raging conflict, Lincoln’s proclamation explained many reasons to give thanks, and remarked with humility that “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.”

Lincoln recommended that “while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience...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.”

With Lincoln, Thanksgiving became an annual tradition. But like so much of our civic calendar, it has all but been stripped of its deeper meaning.

Perhaps now, in the wake of the most contentious election in modern times and in the grips of the worst pandemic in a century, we can return to the foundations of this magnificent holiday. This Thanksgiving, acknowledge our wondrous blessings, including our Declaration of Independence, Constitution and prosperity. Give thanks, express humility, and pray for your family and us all.

That would be a Thanksgiving worthy of America.

Judge Michael Warren is the co-creator of Patriot Week (www.PatriotWeek.org), and host of the Patriot Lessons: American History & Civics Podcast.