On Thanksgiving, millions of Americans will sit down to a decorated table filled with turkey and all the trimmings such as mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday. They will tell stories, laugh and enjoy conversation with their loved ones. But there are other homes around the nation where the dining room table will be accompanied by an empty chair. In that chair once sat a husband, father, brother, sister, son or daughter. It sat a graduate, a friend and a United States warrior. It is now an empty reminder of a courageous American hero who gave his or her life for this country. Today we say a prayer for those families with the empty seat at the table, and we thank them for their sacrifice to this country. At Thanksgiving, Americans must be thankful for the heroes—and the families that they leave behind—that volunteer to fight 365 days of the year all across the world so that the rest of us can be free. Thanksgiving is about more than a turkey and sitting around a dinner table. It is about giving thanks to God for all of the blessings we enjoy, including our troops and our freedom.
Where did Thanksgiving come from? In 1620, the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Fleeing religious persecution, they vowed to make a better life for all in North America. The Pilgrims, unaccustomed to the Massachusetts winter, would not have survived their first winter without the help of the Indians, who brought them food, saving them from starvation. During the following year, the Pilgrims’ conditions improved in Massachusetts, leading to a productive harvest season. To celebrate and give thanks to God for the harvest, the Pilgrims, invited the Indians who had helped them the previous winter, and held a three-day feast. This feast was the birth of what is today known as Thanksgiving.
A common misconception about Thanksgiving is that it was annually celebrated following 1621. Actually, for the next 150 years, the American colonists would only celebrate Thanksgiving when there was cause to do so. In 1789, President George Washington declared a National Day of Thanksgiving for the American colonists. In his Presidential Proclamation, Washington stated: “It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the Providence of Almighty God … to be grateful for His benefits, and to (request) his protection and favor. I, President Washington, recommend to the people of the United States, a day of public thanksgiving and prayer … to show the many favors of the Almighty and especially the opportunity for this form of government.”
President Washington’s belief in a National Day of Thanksgiving was not widely agreed upon or accepted throughout the colonies. For the next 70 years, a day of Thanksgiving was not routinely held. During the early 1800s, however, a female magazine editor named Sarah Josepha Hale began a 40-year campaign to institute a National Day of Thanksgiving. In November 1863, President Abraham Lincoln, agreeing with Sarah Hale, proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving for the last Thursday in November. Thus began the tradition of Thanksgiving Day. But, it was not until 1941, under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that Thanksgiving was declared an official national holiday by Congress.
No matter what Thanksgiving traditions have been enacted since Thanksgiving Day was first declared in 1863, and officially recognized a national holiday in 1941, Thanksgiving has always been about giving thanks to God for what we have and thinking of others who may not have what we do. This Thanksgiving Day, I invite this great nation to not lose sight of the true meaning of Thanksgiving and to do as the Pilgrims did before us: Offer a prayer of thanks to God for all of the gifts that he has bestowed.
And that’s just the way it is.