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History of Thanksgiving is a quest for unity

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While Thanksgiving is clearly a celebration of gratitude for a bountiful harvest, its origin and history in the United States tell an unexpected tale of unity that is particularly relevant in these divisive times.

While the early history of the United States is rife with atrocities committed against Native Americans, the “first Thanksgiving” — a three-day feast in 1621 — was a peaceful moment of fellowship between English settlers and the Wampanoag among whom they lived.

An annual, recurring, nationwide holiday would not be proclaimed until 1863, in the middle of the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation was more than a declaration of a holiday — it was also a heartfelt plea for the end of the war and a reunification of the nation. 

In an effort to lengthen the Christmas shopping season and stimulate the economy in the midst of the Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt briefly changed the date of the holiday to the next-to-last Thursday, but the move was considered an affront to Lincoln’s memory and triggered partisan outrage. Nov. 30, 1939, was considered “Republican Thanksgiving,” and Nov. 23 was “Democratic Thanksgiving.” The experiment appeared to fail, with no measurable boost to the 1939 and 1940 Christmas shopping seasons. On Dec. 26, 1941, Congress passed a law making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday of November, where it has remained — a bipartisan celebration — ever since.

We are once again facing a crisis of division. As we give thanks for the blessings that have been visited upon us, let us also remember to pray for healing and a reunification of our nation.

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