Jackie Gingrich Cushman
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Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. A day of family gatherings, feasting, football and the last respite before the start of the Christmas shopping season. The focus is on spending time together rather than giving gifts and attending cocktail parties.

Thanksgiving began in 1621, when the Pilgrims invited the Wampanoag Indians to join them in celebration of the fall harvest. The Indians traveled for several days, created their own camp, and stayed with the Pilgrims for three days of feasting and celebration. This first Thanksgiving sounds similar to our tradition of family members invading a relative's home and staying there for days on end.

The holiday received official status in 1789, with George Washington's first presidential proclamation, which designated the 26th day of November next, to be set aside for Thanksgiving. "It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God and to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor," he wrote.

For decades afterward, states set aside different dates to celebrate Thanksgiving. It took the persistent efforts of Sarah Josepha Hale to get the nation as a whole to observe a single day as Thanksgiving.

Hale was born in New Hampshire in 1788. Her brother, Horatio, helped her receive an education by teaching her what he had learned at Dartmouth each time he returned home. After he received his diploma, he presented it to Sarah, in recognition of her accomplishment.

At 18, Sarah founded a private school and taught there until she met and married David Hale. While married, she wrote short stories and articles that were published in newspapers.

After Hale's sudden death when Sarah was in her late 30s and her failed attempt at making and selling women's hats, Sarah published a book that attracted the attention of the owner of a new women's magazine, Rev. John Blake, who hired her as editor.

Hale wrote poetry and fiction. One of her best known works is the nursery rhyme "Mary Had a Little Lamb."

Hale led a campaign for nearly 40 years for an official day of thanks to be celebrated throughout the country. She lobbied five presidents and wrote numerous newspaper editorials in support of a day of Thanksgiving.

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared a day of Thanksgiving after the Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg. After receiving a letter from Hale urging him to set aside a permanent, single, day of Thanksgiving, Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a day of Thanksgiving.

Lincoln's proclamation, made during the Civil War, acknowledged "The gracious gifts of the Most High God" and noted that it "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." Lincoln invited his fellow citizens to observe "a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens."

Thanksgiving has been celebrated as a national holiday since Lincoln's proclamation. While this established a single Thanksgiving Day for our nation, the date on which Thanksgiving Day fell continued to change every year.

In 1939, in an effort to lengthen the Christmas selling season, President Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving up a week -- to the next to last Thursday of November. This created much confusion regarding which Thursday was the correct day for Thanksgiving. In 1941, President Roosevelt signed legislation making Thanksgiving the 4th Thursday in November.

Thanksgiving is a family holiday, where the emphasis is on fellowship and time rather than gifts, glitz and fancy cocktail parties. The holiday's one constant is time to sit down and eat together. While this might appear to be simplistic and unimportant to some, studies have proven there is great value in family gatherings for meals.

That same positive impact of coming together to break bread may hold true for the nation, too. Coming together to break bread and share time may help families overcome miscommunication, misunderstanding and misinterpretation. If so, let us gather together, be thankful and, as Lincoln wrote in his proclamation, "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, tranquility and Union."

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Jackie Gingrich Cushman

Jackie Gingrich Cushman is a speaker, syndicated columnist, socialpreneur, and author of "The Essential American: 25 Documents and Speeches Every American Should Own," and co-author of “The 5 Principles for a Successful Life: From Our Family to Yours”.