Thanksgiving Day — a day of family gatherings to give thanks for our many blessings — has evolved into a day of turkey and football, as the NFL’s Thanksgiving Day rivalries fill the TV. Now, it threatens to be taken over by a shopping spree. This year, Wal-Mart has announced it will open its stores at 6 p.m. on Thursday to begin its “Black Friday” sales. Macy’s, Target, Kmart and others are all moving up their opening times on Thursday. Suddenly, Thanksgiving dinner itself is at risk.
This lust for stuff is a stark contradiction to the origins of Thanksgiving. Days of thanksgiving were celebrated in England from the 1500s as part of the Protestant Reformation. This country traces a thanksgiving feast back most famously to 1621, when the Puritans in Plymouth Colony gave thanks for a bountiful harvest. In 1789, President George Washington issued the first national proclamation declaring a day of “thanksgiving and prayer.”
Over the next half century, the date of thanksgiving holidays varied from state to state, although most were associated with celebrating the harvest. Thanksgiving Day was largely a New England tradition, unknown in the South. The pressure for a nationwide holiday came not from retailers but from Sara Josepha Hale, a successful writer and orator, editor of the Godey’s Ladies Book, one of the most influential style magazines of its time. She lobbied hard for a national day of thanksgiving.
Abraham Lincoln issued the first executive proclamation establishing a national holiday of Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November. He did so in the midst of the Civil War, in part to foster a sense of unity between the South and the North. His Oct. 3, 1863, proclamation called for a day of “Thanksgiving and Praise,” noting that “in the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity,” the U.S. should give thanks that peace “has been preserved with all nations, order had been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theater of military conflict.”
Lincoln noted that the costly war had “not arrested the plow, the shuttle or the ship,” that “the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements and the mines … have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore.”
These “great things” were clearly “gracious gifts of the Most High God,” and should be “solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged” in a “Day of Thanksgiving and Praise.” Lincoln asked that people pray also that the Almighty “heal the wounds of the nation and restore it…to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”
Thanksgiving was not a day for shopping or football, but for giving thanks for our blessings and praying for peace and unity. It was only with the abolition of slavery that Thanksgiving finally became a holiday that was celebrated across the nation.
Wal-Mart’s decision to open its stores means that thousands of its employees will be forced to work rather than have a day with their families. In response to critics, Duncan MacNaughton, executive vice president and chief of U.S. merchandising and marketing for the giant retailer, replied that the employees could enjoy “a nice Thanksgiving dinner at work,” be paid extra and be able to get a 25 discount on any one purchase.
This surely is not what Lincoln or our forefathers had in mind. Rather than lining up early on Thursday to plunge into the crowds of shoppers, surely we’d be better served by enjoying our Thanksgiving dinner at home, and pausing to give thanks for the blessings we enjoy, our family that gathers, and our nation that endures.