For the Moment

For the Moment

Before there was Thanksgiving, there were Thanksgivings—one-off days of Christian observance, potentially falling any time of year, that 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 Pilgrims in 1621, wasn’t even the first Thanksgiving celebration in the colonies, let alone the New World. In fact, its participants didn’t consider it a Thanksgiving at all.

In 1863, when President Lincoln proclaimed a national end-of-November Thanksgiving following a long drought of federally endorsed Thanksgivings, he was still employing the pre-modern notion of the holiday—as a religious, moment-driven expression of gratitude. He invited America to celebrate “the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies” and the failure of civil war to “ 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 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, 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 holiday, not a religious one.

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

Enjoy it—

—Your friends at Daily Nutmeg—

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