When Thanksgiving Was Weird

No turkey tablecloths. No football. No pouring over the Black Friday ads. And, most bordertimportantly, no glitter pumpkin decor.

This was when Thanksgiving was weird.

On October 3, 1863 the nation was knee-deep in blood.

President Abraham Lincoln released what came to be known as the beginning of an annual tradition of presidential Thanksgiving proclamations. Lincoln decreed the Thanksgiving celebration, which was already practiced in several states at the time, would now be a national holiday every year on the fourth Thursday of November.

When Lincoln entered office, Thanksgiving was celebrated through most of the Union and even in some of the Confederacy. Some believed Lincoln’s proclamation to be politically motivated—since the holiday roots in evangelical Protestants who were strictly against slavery.

Despite the critics, Abraham Lincoln released his 1863 Thanksgiving proclamation while the nation was at war. What he said would have made the modern idea of Thanksgiving squirm.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. 

Lincoln said God dealt “with us in anger for our sins” and even so, He still “remembered mercy.” He went on with recommendations.

And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do 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 unavoidable engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

The president recommended, “humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience.” The mention of such strong ideas to the modern Thanksgiving would not be taken nicely. Yeah, the nation was at war when Lincoln made this recommendation, but I wouldn’t consider our country “conflict free” at the moment. Nor is a nation ever conflict free. There’s always problems.

Thanksgiving has been dumbed down.

In recent decades, any mention of national failings, sin or perversity has gone missing. You don’t hear it in any Thanksgiving proclamations and those topics probably won’t come up around your Thanksgiving table. Instead the focus is on food, shopping and, while this is still a good thing, friends and family.

The purpose and majesty of Thanksgiving is lost. What obligation is driving us? The obligation to live up to a national standard derived from, if not the Bible, the natural law? Not really.

Thanksgiving is a time to give thanks, hence its name. But I think it’s also a time to recognize just how merciful God has been. We do not deserve blessings, but due to the nature of God, he wants to bless us. It’s important to recognize our inconsistencies and failures. It’s important to recognize sin. It’s important to humbly accept His grace and mercy bestowed to us this Thanksgiving Day.

Yes, compared to today, the first nationally recognized Thanksgiving celebration was weird. But this Thanksgiving, I want it to be weird. I want to bring back the majesty of the celebration and truly experience the mercy and grace given to us all.

Thanksgiving, compared to the present secular ideas, should be weird.



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