Big Moment

Big Moment

B efore there was Thanksgiving, there were Thanksgivings—one-off days of Christian observance, potentially falling any time of year, which good fortune had compelled communities to set aside for giving thanks to God. The feast most modern American celebrants romantically believe originated the tradition, between Native Americans and the Pilgrims in 1621, wasn’t even the first Thanksgiving celebration in the colonies, let alone the New World. Indeed, its participants didn’t consider it a Thanksgiving at all.

In 1863, when President Lincoln proclaimed a national end-of-November day of Thanksgiving following a long drought of federally endorsed Thanksgivings, he was still employing the pre-modern notion of the holiday—as a religious, of-the-moment thanking for perceived good fortune. He invited America to celebrate “the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies” and the failure of civil war to “[arrest] the plough, the shuttle or the ship,” among other causes, making no mention of that meal near Plymouth Rock.

Lincoln’s proclamation led to the holiday being re-proclaimed every year by every successive U.S. president—each of whom surely saw the political benefit of declaring a day of rest, and of singing the nation’s praises under his tenure, four times per term—until 1941. That’s when Congress passed, and Franklin D. Roosevelt signed, a law annualizing the holiday into perpetuity.

By then Thanksgiving had already transformed. Football had long since attached itself to the holiday, with some historians tracing the association to a series of Yale-Princeton matchups begun in 1876. But more importantly, its connection to family-gathering had now developed, as mass transportation and urbanization had flung family members far and wide, creating a separation Thanksgiving could close. Its contemporary secular bent was secured by its almost patriotic appeal to people of all cultures and beliefs, who adopted Thanksgiving as an American, not a religious, holiday.

So feel free to go off-course today. From its origins to evolutions and even, in a way, to the mythologizing that surrounds it, history shows Thanksgiving’s never been about honoring history. It’s always been about honoring the moment.

Enjoy it—

—Your friends at Daily Nutmeg—

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Dan has worked for a couple of major media companies, but he likes Daily Nutmeg best. As DN’s editor, he writes, photographs, edits and otherwise shepherds ideas into fully realized feature stories, helped in no small part by a small team of dedicated contributors.

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