In 1789, George Washington was the first president to proclaim a Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday, November 26, as a day of celebration for the US Constitution. In the 1800’s, Sarah Josepha Hale, an editorialist, began a campaign to have several US Presidents declare Thanksgiving a national holiday. Her pleas fell on deaf ears until 1863, when, at her urging, Lincoln declared the day a national holiday at about the same time as he gave his now immortal Gettysburg Address. However, it wasn’t until FDR’s declaration in 1941 that Thanksgiving became an official national holiday celebrated each subsequent year on the fourth Thursday of November.
As we approach this Thursday, we face a holiday unlike any other we previously celebrated. Most have abandoned travel plans; communal dinners have been canceled or significantly downsized, and in this heart piercing year, too many members of families are being mourned. In her book “We Gather Together” author Denise Kiernan reminds us that thankfulness is a state of mind as nourishing as any feast, and grace isn’t something we say but bestow. For a long time, many psychologists and neuroscientists have given evidence that “gratitude practice” is good for the body and the soul, and as I wrote in a prior essay, it is one of the four essential pillars to happiness.
For the first time in forty years, I will not be sharing Thanksgiving with our two closest friends, breaking our annual tradition of spending the holiday with this couple and their families, as they have spent their Christmas holidays with ours. Intellectually, I understand the rational reasons we have reached this divide, but the emotional aftershocks are something that I’m still struggling to resolve. Somehow, knowing that I’m not alone in this predicament doesn’t make the conflict any less. I can only focus on my good fortune to have remained healthy despite the risks posed by my hospital job, and to give repeated thanks to have my wife here by my side to reflect our mutual gratitude for the gift of our lives together. My son and his family across the ocean will share the joys of this day in their own little bubble, as all of us, separated as we are in space, come together at least virtually and in emotion to say, “Thank you.”