Putting aside our differences to give thanks.

Thanksgiving is a time of year that makes me reflect on how blessed I am. I’ve got a wonderful family, I enjoy my work, and I live in a great community. It’s easy to get bogged down by the divisiveness of politics in this country, making it seem as though we have insurmountable problems or that we’re splintered as a nation. I don’t believe either of those things, and I think Thanksgiving is a great time to reflect on all the good we see in the world. That’s been the purpose of Thanksgiving in this country since colonial times.

The first Thanksgiving is generally recognized as the feast in the autumn of 1621 shared by the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts. This is the scene we typically think of when we hear of Thanksgiving, and the images of Native Americans and Pilgrims have become inextricably tied to the holiday. However, this celebration was held only once and didn’t involve many of the traditions we associate with Thanksgiving today.

In 1789, President George Washington issued the first formal presidential proclamation of Thanksgiving in the United States. Washington designated Thursday, November 26, of that year as a day of “thanksgiving” and prayer to show gratitude to the almighty for the safety and happiness that Americans were enjoying under their new government. Even though this seems fairly straightforward, there was some opposition to the idea in Congress. Some things about politics never seem to change.

Washington issued another proclamation for the day of Thanksgiving in 1795, after the defeat of the Whiskey Rebellion. Several presidents after Washington declared days of Thanksgiving on an intermittent basis, but some presidents were opposed to the idea of Thanksgiving as a national day of observation. It would take the efforts of a woman most famous for a nursery rhyme to finally solidify Thanksgiving as a yearly national holiday.

Sarah Josepha Hale was only a 1-year-old when Washington issued his first Thanksgiving proclamation. The daughter of a Revolutionary War veteran, she became a schoolteacher and eventually began authoring poetry and novels. Her collection entitled “Poems for Our Children” included a popular poem titled “Mary’s Lamb,” although today we know it better as “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Her 1827 novel “Northwood: A Tale of New England” devoted an entire chapter to the fall tradition of Thanksgiving.

Then in 1846, Hale began a 17-year quest to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. She wrote letters in succession to presidents Taylor, Fill-more, Pierce, Buchanan, and Lincoln, attempting to persuade each of them to support the proposed national holiday of Thanksgiving. Hale believed that a unifying measure would ease some of the growing acrimonies between the northern and southern parts of the U.S. In addition to her presidential correspondence, she wrote editorials espousing the benefits of the idea and published recipes for Thanksgiving dishes.

In 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared a day of thanks after the Battle of Gettysburg. Sarah Josepha Hale again wrote to Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward, encouraging them to make the holiday permanent. Within a week, Seward drafted an official proclamation, signed by Lincoln, declaring the last Thursday in November an official Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S.

Mrs. Hale believed that a day of thanks would help heal the wounds of the nation and give us a chance to put aside our differences. Thanks-giving still stands as a day to do just that. As we gather with our families and friends, enjoy a good meal, watch football, or engage in any of the other traditions on Thanksgiving, take a minute and remember what Thanksgiving represents. Despite our differences, we’re one nation, under God, and we have more things in common than we have things to Mike Bernskoetter drive us apart.

Mike Bernskoetter