Today is Thanksgiving Day.

We mark Thanksgiving differently than in the past. We buy out the supermarket, stuff ourselves full, sleep through boring football games, and wake up in time to look for Black Friday deals in the stores.

We know the story of the pilgrims. And we say that is where Thanksgiving came from. That’s only a smidgen of the truth. Yes, a meal was held. Yes, they thanked the Lord for what they had. But no one stood at the table and said, “Hey, I think we need to make this a holiday.”

Most states held days of thanksgiving, but they were scattered throughout the year and never very formal.

But the origins of Thanksgiving did not come out of the bounty of a fall harvest. Instead, it came from a terrible battle with thousands of deaths.

In 1863, in a little vale in Pennsylvania, the Armies of the Confederacy and the Army of the Potomac met in a clashed battle at Gettysburg. The civil war than ravaged America less than a century after its founding strained the republic. And now, on this field, a turning point took place.

President Abraham Lincoln went there and spoke a bare 87 words that took 10 minutes. They wept and remembered. It was the third Thursday of November.

It was suggested to him that perhaps, in the midst of this bloodshed, the country could stop and give thanks.

So Lincoln issued the following proclamation:

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. 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, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. 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 unavoidably 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, tranquillity and Union.

In all times, and in the worst of life, people gave thanks.

  • When Saul hunted David like a jackal, David gave thanks to God.
  • When Job sat in ashes scratching himself, he gave thanks.
  • When Paul sat chained between Roman soldiers, he gave thanks.
  • When John huddled on the rock called Patmos, he gave thanks.

Thanksgiving does not derive from the good things in life, but because life is good. In life, we learn, grown, and glean the fruit of hot summers and devastating storms that afflict life at various stages. It is a perception that most do not gather until they stand, look back, and say, “And even for the tragedy, I am grateful.”

Some days it is easier to give thanks. In other moments, the word chokes in our throats.

I have been to more funerals than I wished. I lost people. Routines so ingrained fell away at once. Life changed and is changing. At times, I wonder about giving thanks during a year when over a quarter of a million people died and untold numbers of others had life altered.

Yet, no matter, today is a day to give thanks.

We take the fourth Thursday in November to formally do what should happen every day. To give thanks.