I know how Golde and Tevye from “Fiddler on the Roof” must have felt when they sang:
Swiftly fly the years,
One season following another,
Laiden with happiness and tears.
Wasn’t it just a “blink of an eye” ago that it was summer?
So now it is time to get ready for Thanksgiving. “One season following another.” This time of the year causes me to think about all the explorers who came to populate the New World, especially the Pilgrims.
The Pilgrims wanted to separate from the Anglican Church and sought a place where they could live out their religious convictions and establish both civil and religious freedom. They were intrigued by the possibilities that the New World presented and decided to settle there. After a treacherous ocean crossing, they arrived in late November of 1620.
The new settlers found the American continent filled with peril and uncertainty. They were used to England’s mild Marine West Coast winters and were unprepared to face the harsh winter that the continental climate provided. Nearly half of them died before spring came.
Yet, they persevered in prayer. Assisted by the helpful Wampanoag Indians, the Pilgrims reaped a bountiful harvest the following autumn. To show their thankfulness to God, the Pilgrims declared a three-day feast in December of 1621 and invited their Native American friends to join them. This was America’s first Thanksgiving festival, but it was not the New World’s first thanksgiving celebration.
It seems that “Americans” have always stopped to convey their thanks to God. In 1607, services expressing thanks had already been observed in Virginia, but it wasn’t until 1777 that all 13 colonies jointly celebrated Thanksgiving. They all paused to give thanks for the victory over the British at Saratoga.
In 1789 President George Washington issued a one-time proclamation naming Nov. 26 as the first official national day to express our “sincere and humble thanks” to God for the opportunity to form a new nation and to establish a new constitution.
Americans continued to express their thanks to God, but subsequent thanksgiving observances usually occurred state by state and on varying days. It is important to remember that Americans never forgot to express gratitude to the Creator.
Much of the credit for the adoption of an annual national Thanksgiving Day is attributed to Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book. For 30 years, she promoted the idea of a national Thanksgiving Day contacting president after president until Abraham Lincoln complied. President Lincoln took action after the Gettysburg victory.
Basing the observance on Washington’s date, he set aside the last Thursday of November 1863 as a National Day of Thanksgiving. He made the Thanksgiving celebration a nation-wide holiday to be commemorated each year on the fourth Thursday of November. Over the next 75 years, presidents followed Lincoln’s precedent, annually declaring a national Thanksgiving Day to be the fourth Thursday in November.
Observing Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday in November has only been changed twice. President Roosevelt, responding to merchants’ pleas, changed Thanksgiving to the third Thursday of November in 1939 and 1940. Their idea was to create more Christmas shopping days to spur the economy that was still in the recovery-mode from the Great Depression.
The change was met with resistance because it meant rescheduling popular things like football games, parades, and school holidays. In 1941, Congress officially set the fourth Thursday in November as the national holiday for Thanksgiving.
What is all of this “thanking God” about? With the help of the media, we are reminded that these kinds of actions are old-fashioned and politically incorrect. After all, doesn’t the Constitution guarantee us freedom from religion? We do not want atheists, agnostics or any other non-Christians to feel alienated or left out. We want everyone to feel included.
That poses the question, “Does America have a Godly heritage?” We have been a nation that has unabashedly rejoiced and given thanks to our Creator, and those traditions can be found in tens of thousands of historic documents. We definitely do have a Godly heritage.
If you recall the story from “The Fiddler,” you will remember that Russian political upheaval in 1905 forced Tevye and Golde’s family, along with other Jewish families, to say goodbye to their village of Anatevka. Having to abandon their beloved village also meant they were leaving behind all the traditions that were familiar to them.
May we never allow the U.S. political climate to force us to relinquish our tradition of giving thanks to God. Currently teaching about our Godly heritage in public schools is precarious, but we must not permit it to be smothered out.
WILLEE COOPER is a former teacher and military spouse.
A Hopkinsville resident, she is past president of the Kentucky Federation of Republican Women. Her column runs on
the first and third Friday of each month. Reach her at email@example.com.