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Where did the tradition of Thanksgiving start?

Thanksgiving is more than a tradition that brings families together for food and football. It is a defining part of American culture — one that has saved the nation from being boastful in triumph or filled with despair during trials. It has simultaneously turned the nation’s gaze upward toward heaven and sideways toward the needs of others.

George Washington set the tone in 1789 when he designated the fourth Thursday of November as “a day of thanksgiving.” But the idea was not novel. Colonists had often set aside days of thanks for spiritual reflection. Washington, himself, had designated times of thanksgiving for his soldiers during the Revolutionary War, especially after triumphs.

Always, these holidays were heavily influenced by religion. Washington’s first thanksgiving proclamation began by saying, “It is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor …”

Subsequent presidents have reflected that tone. In 1863, amid some of the darkest days of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation that noted many of the nation’s blessings. Then he added, “They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people.”

In 1944, while WWII raged, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s proclamation asked Americans to read the scriptures between Thanksgiving and Christmas. “Let every man of every creed go to his own version of the Scriptures for a renewed and strengthening contact with those eternal truths and majestic principles which have inspired such measure of true greatness as this nation has achieved,” he wrote.

This is true even today. In his 2021 proclamation, President Joe Biden hearkened to the proclamations of Washington and Lincoln. “Thanksgiving provides us with a time to reflect on our many blessings — from God, this nation, and each other,” he said.

And in 2020, as the pandemic raged, President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (which owns this newspaper) spoke about the healing power of gratitude.

“Over my nine-and-a-half decades of life,” he said, “I have concluded that counting our blessings is far better than recounting our problems. No matter our situation, showing gratitude for our privileges is a fast-acting and long-lasting spiritual prescription.”

He urged people to express gratitude on social media and to engage in daily prayer. 

One of the leading scientists in the field of gratitude, Robert Emmons, said thankfulness has two components. As reported in Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine, the first of these is that it affirms goodness in the world. “We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received.”

The second of these is to affirm that these good things come from sources outside of ourselves. Often, people acknowledge a higher power. 

The report said gratitude encourages people to repay these gifts in some way, quoting sociologist Georg Simmel, who called it “the moral memory of mankind.” 

This could be one reason why Americans lead the world in charitable giving. According to the World Giving Index of 2022, Americans don’t just give money; 72% of them help strangers and 42% volunteer in some way to help their community. This long tradition has taken on new twists in the modern world, with many people setting up fundraisers on Facebook and Tiktok to celebrate birthdays in lieu of seeking presents. 

Axios said Facebook reports these birthday fundraisers bring in hundreds of millions of dollars yearly for good causes.

Americans owe this tradition not only to the first European settlers in this country, but to the Native Americans who occupied the land first. As put it, “In Native American culture, giving is not only understood to be reciprocal, but is also an honor; as much as it is an honor to give, it is equally an honor to receive. Because it is such an honor to receive, there is also, in turn, an obligation to give.”

This legacy of gratitude deserves serious contemplation during this Thanksgiving season. It is a great source of strength that never should be taken for granted.

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