Our family likes to celebrate and decorate for just about every holiday. Sometimes we make our own decorations and other times I buy them. Often they tie into a reflection or activity our family does related to a particular holiday season. We have prayer pumpkins during October, thanksgivings during November, a Jesse Tree during Advent, and Valen-kinds around Valentines Day. We were working on a new one, counting blessings for Saint Patrick’s Day, but got a bit sidetracked with everything going on. Each holiday’s celebration has become important in teaching how God is part of our daily life from different perspectives.
It’s no wonder her push to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday was how I quickly connected with Sarah Josepha Buell Hale. Truth be told, I’d never done much poking around about how Thanksgiving really came to be, and I was a history major in college! Given our family’s daily reflections on gratitude around Thanksgiving, I found Hale’s dedication to and the evolution of her motivation around establishing the holiday wonderful. As we celebrate her today, I am grateful for Thanksgiving along with the many causes Hale advocated for in her nearly 90 years of life. Many of which still have an impact today.
Hale first began writing about Thanksgiving in the mid-1830’s, but a formal letter writing campaign to the President and Congress members began in 1849. This campaign was met with resistance across the political spectrum. Over seventeen years, Hale encountered many who felt the holiday violated the separation of church and state. Southern legislators thought it was another way the North was attempting to impose their values. In 1863 she wrote President Lincoln, shifting her argument from “we have too few holidays” to “‘a National and fixed Union Festival’ should occur on the last Thursday of November, annually, because the last Thursday of November was when George Washington had declared the first national Thanksgiving in 1789”. Finally, Abraham Lincoln issued the proclamation on October 3,1863 saying, “in the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, the American people should take some time for gratitude.”
Striking, as we are in the midst of a pandemic of unequalled magnitude and severity.
I see and hear people at odds over everything from when and how to reopen the economy, to how to handle the medical aspects of the crisis. Their words are as sharp and divisive as I imagine them around the Civil War. Lincoln’s statement really resonated with me, “…people should take some time for gratitude.”
In a recent NPR post regarding grieving and loss among graduating seniors, Lynn Bufka, psychologist and spokesperson for the American Psychological Association said people are able to cope better when they “think about the altruistic reason they’re doing this.” Changes in everyday life to limit the spread of disease may be hard, but Bufka offered the reminder that “we’re in it together and we’re in it to benefit the larger community and to have a good impact on overall health and wellbeing.”
I know expressing gratitude can be hard for those who have experienced the loss of a loved one, a furloughed job, a graduation, or another significant milestone. For our family, during this time of physical distancing, face masks, virtual working and schooling, along with stay at home orders, we have rediscovered things we’d let fall off the radar. Family game nights, walks around our neighborhood, and reading together. We’ve also found some new things like virtual dinners with friends or family who live far away or by themselves, as well as baking cookies for friends we miss seeing at school or church. These activities have helped us focus on what we can do, instead of what we cannot. And for that I am so grateful.
It is amazing what is motivated by your situation. Not necessarily at dinner, but we have started sharing what we are thankful for, just like we do with our Thanksgiving tree. It’s been a good reminder that gratitude isn’t seasonal. Sarah Josepha Buell Hale was motivated by what she saw happening around her, a situation escalating into an unprecedented time. She was a woman deep in her faith and gratitude for God, and you can see it woven through the verses of her poetry. While it might not come through in her well-known children’s poem “Mary had a Little Lamb,” her faith and gratitude is quite evident in “Sabbath Morning” (Poems for Our Children, 1830). Hale writes in stanzas 3 and 6,
Love to God, and to our neighbor;
Makes our purest happiness ;
Vain the wish, the care the labor ;
Earth’s poor trifle to possess;
No, my God — one prayer I raise thee,
From my pure and happy heart,
Never let me cease to praise thee —
Never from thy fear depart.
How are you expressing gratitude during this unprecedented time?