Thanksgiving in America, 2020
This message is one of many related to our diverse community’s numerous unique holidays, including cultural, historic, and religious observances throughout the year. I am likely to write about the holidays or cultural observances that mean the most to you as they occur throughout the year. Please let me know if you want to learn my plans about a holiday that is specifically important to you.
On Thursday, November 26, 2020, many of us will celebrate Thanksgiving Day.
What is Thanksgiving Day?
The origins of this holiday in the United States date back to 1621, but Canada’s Thanksgiving is even older. It dates back to 1578 in modern-day Nunavut, when English explorer Martin Frobisher celebrated his safe arrival in the arctic. The holiday’s Canadian roots can be traced centuries earlier among First Nations peoples (Canada’s indigenous peoples), who celebrated bountiful harvests with dancing and feasting. Canada’s Thanksgiving is celebrated annually on the second Monday in October.
The United States’ Thanksgiving originated separately from Canada’s. Whether the holiday’s origins were peaceful or violent is a matter of some debate. I wrote in detail about the history of this holiday last year. I encourage you to read it.
While Thanksgiving today is celebrated as a family-centered, peaceful holiday, multiple American wars have contributed significantly to the day’s national status.
For example, in 1863, the American Civil War was raging. The tide appeared to be turning in favor of Union forces. On October 3, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln issued the first proclamation making Thanksgiving a national holiday.
Lincoln was probably influenced in his proclamation by Sarah Josepha Hale. She was a writer, editor, and advocate for women’s education. She lobbied state and federal officials to declare a day of thanksgiving for many years. She eventually wrote to Lincoln, urging him to declare Thanksgiving “permanently, an American custom and institution.”
Lincoln issued the proclamation as a call for healing and unity, asking God to “commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” and to “heal the wounds of the nation.” Because it was grounded in the Civil War era, the South long rejected this national holiday, only embracing it around the time of the Great Depression (1929-1939).
Celebrations and observances
The holiday originally had religious grounding in giving thanks to God. Today, it has religious meaning for some, and is a secular celebration for others.
For many Americans, Thanksgiving is about food, family, and friends. This year will be very different due to the pandemic. Normally, large extended families gather in groups to share a traditional meal and activities like games, music, and watching sports on TV. In Michigan, it is a longstanding tradition to watch the Detroit Lions NFL football team play in the afternoon. The Lions have played every Thanksgiving Day since 1934. I personally have watched the Lions on Thanksgiving since before I can remember. I can remember a few times they have won on this holiday—but I always watch.
This year, due to a nationwide spike in COVID cases, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and Governor Whitmer have asked Michigan residents to limit their gatherings to 10 people or fewer, and to include no more than two households. This will be very difficult for many of us, but will almost certainly save lives and reduce the chances of accelerating the spread of the pandemic. My immediate family and I will observe Thanksgiving at home, and will connect with other loved ones through technology. I encourage you to do the same.
Thanksgiving is a great time to reflect on our gratitude for the things we value most. The tradition of giving thanks is meaningful to me. Like all of you, I have much to be grateful for. At the top of my list are my wife and children, my mother and my extended family, and my friends. I am grateful for all of you who are part of this community at Henry Ford College. It is my privilege every day to be your teammate and to live here in Dearborn.
I wish all of you a restful, joyous, and safe Thanksgiving break. And I look forward to a return, in future years, to our large and bountiful gatherings among those closest to us.