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Giving Thanks, Four Hundred Years of Tradition

By Lawrence Pfeil, Jr.

One of the earliest “Great American Stories” we’re taught as kids is the First Thanksgiving, probably because it’s easy to understand, reflects our best selves, and includes a “handy” art project.


“Rest and be thankful.” – William Wadsworth

This year marks the four hundredth anniversary of that first Thanksgiving, but what we know about it now is that it bared little resemblance to the mythologized imagery we were told about back then.  Yet, there are striking parallels in 2021 to Thanksgiving’s history over the centuries.

Just as we are coming through the worst year of the coronavirus pandemic yet having lost over 386,000 Americas; so too the Pilgrims had just lost nearly half of their community in their first year.

When President Abraham Lincoln first proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday, due to the tireless efforts of Sarah Josepha Hale, it was in 1863, the only time our nation has been more divided than it is today.

In 1939, FDR signed a proclamation moving the holiday from the “last Thursday” of November to the “third Thursday” to give retailers an extra week of Christmas shopping to help economic recovery from the Great Depression

Finally, the most iconic Thanksgiving image created is arguable the one painted by Norman Rockwell in 1943. But it actually appeared in March as part of his “Four Freedoms” series: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Fear, and Freedom from Want.  They are a far cry from the images of “freedom” we see today.

“Freedom From Want” March 6, 1943, Saturday Evening Post

There has been a conspicuous absence this week of anyone taking note of Thanksgiving’s quadricentennial.  One imagines it’s because they don’t want to wander in a minefield of woke, political correctness, and hyper-cultural sensitivity about colonialism and white supremacy   To be sure, these are valid and important discussions needed to correct the historical record and clarify the truth.  But to ignore a four-hundred-year-old tradition of setting aside a day to give thanks, be grateful, and show gratitude, seems to be missing the point all together.

“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” -Meister Eckhart

In an ever-growing hostile world, divided by narcissism, lies, and hate, being grateful and showing gratitude towards others for their kindness, thoughtfulness, compassion, is becoming a greater challenge.  It becomes a challenge to find things for which to be thankful with so much sickness and death, so much anger and hate, so much uncertainty.  All the more reason to embrace being grateful in the moment, in the moment of someone hold a door, making us laugh, in the countless people behind the covid vaccine going into our arm.

In difficult times, gratitude is difficult; but it’s true, “you see what you look for.”  A day when we look for reasons to be thankful is a day worth celebrating, as is our four-century tradition of doing so.

“When you arise in the morning give thanks for the food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself.” —Tecumseh


We’d like to express our gratitude to our readers and followers by dedicating David Campbell’s “Grateful” by John Bucchino on piano.


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