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Thanksgiving: From gratitude to God in 1863 to today’s recognition of dependency

Thanksgiving was created by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 … [H]e used the language of Christianity to explain the logic of this national ritual.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God … While offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings … also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation. …

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, oil on canvas by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914).

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, oil on canvas by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914).

But in 1863, America was a different kind of Christian nation than it is now. The country is far more religiously diverse and culturally secular than it was when Thanksgiving was founded. A strong majority of Americans consider themselves religious, but for many others, religious faith doesn’t play much of a role in their everyday lives. …. If people aren’t thanking God, who are they thanking? You can thank your grandma for making delicious pie, but who do you thank for the general circumstances of your life? …

“Let me explain something about gratitude,” wrote Robert Emmons, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, in an email.

We all begin life dependent on others, and most of us end life dependent on others. If we are lucky, in between we have roughly 60 years or so of unacknowledged dependency. The human condition is such that throughout life, not just at the beginning and end, we are profoundly dependent on other people. … Gratitude is the truest approach to life. We did not create or fashion ourselves. We did not birth ourselves. Life is about giving, receiving, and repaying. We are receptive beings, dependent on the help of others, on their gifts and their kindness.

“You see — none of this have I framed in a religious context or using religious/spiritual language,” he concluded.


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