The autumn of 1863 was no doubt among the most welcome, beginning the end of one of the most traumatic years in American history.
The United States were no longer united. Eleven Southern states had seceded, and the country had descended into the hell of civil war two years prior.
Devastating battles such as those at Vicksburg, Chancellorsville, Chickamauga, Murfreesboro and Gettysburg had claimed tens of thousands of lives. Two more years of violence were on the bloody horizon. It would be the season in which President Abraham Lincoln would deliver his 272-word Gettysburg Address.
Shaken by the carnage and resolved to unite the country in common cause, the president proclaimed that the last Thursday in November would be known as what we now celebrate as Thanksgiving Day.
Today, the American people observe Thanksgiving as a time to celebrate what unites us, wherever we live and whoever we are. For the fortunate among us, it’s a day of family, food, friends, children, faith, common values and a little football.
Coming together over a meal is a simple thing, but it’s also life-sustaining and not something to be taken lightly. In this breakneck-paced society, even 15 minutes together can be a wonderful experience.
On Thanksgiving, the entirety of the day (and, for the more ambitious, the night before) is spent preparing turkey, ham, potatoes, bread, stuffing (yes, more, please), pumpkin pie and fill-in-the-blank of your favorite recipes, be they your own or from Grandma’s file box from 1963, another memorably challenging year.
What does Thanksgiving mean, other than food and gathering? It is a moment to pause and feel gratitude for something, anything that connects us to the human experience, or that makes life vivid and joyous.
Love, happy marriages, good health, graduations, jobs, health, new relationships, friendships, reunions, fresh starts, bad habits broken or any of the hundreds of other things we can all agree on are blessings for which we can give thanks.
President Lincoln was a calm voice in a cacophony of strife and anguish in that terrible fall of 1863. In the Gettysburg Address, given just days before the holiday of gratitude he hoped would begin to heal his broken nation, he spoke of the sacrifice of Americans who had given their “last full measure of devotion.”
“It is for us the living … to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here thus far so nobly advanced,” he said.
The work unifying the country is unfinished, 153 years later. Like 1863, 2016 no doubt will go down as an uncommonly divisive year. But let us resolve on this Thanksgiving Day to speak to those with whom we disagree, and agree to keep trying to bridge the gulf that sometimes seems unbridgeable.
Lincoln called for a national thanksgiving. And so, in his generous, unifying spirit, let us gather and give thanks.