Thanksgiving began in 1621 when the Pilgrims invited the Wampanoag Indians to join them in celebration of the fall harvest. The Pilgrims had fled religious persecution in England a year earlier and had lost many of their group during the travels overseas and subsequent harsh winter. After harvest, they paused to thank God. The Indians traveled for several days to join them, created their own camp and stayed for three days of feasting and celebration.
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 a time of 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.
In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared a day of Thanksgiving after the Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, even while the nation was still divided. "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," he wrote.
"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, tranquility, and union."
Even in a time of civil war, Lincoln thanked God and asked for His help to heal wounds. During these times too we can provide prayers of thanks and requests for deliverance to those who are in unfortunate circumstances.
Giving thanks helps those who are grateful, according to "7 Scientifically Proven Benefits of Gratitude," written by Amy Morin, (Psychology Today, April 3, 2015). Gratitude, including thanking new acquaintances "makes them more likely to seek an ongoing relationship," she wrote. Reminding us that being pleasant and thankful strengthens relationships and bonds.
Morin also noted that "grateful people experience fewer aches and pains and report feeling healthier than other people...They exercise more often and are more likely to attend regular check-ups, which is likely to contribute to further longevity."
It's not only physical health but mental health as well. "Gratitude improves psychological health. Gratitude reduces a multitude of toxic emotions, from envy and resentment to frustration and regret...Gratitude enhances empathy and reduces aggression."
And it helps people who struggle to get a good night's sleep. "Grateful people sleep better. Writing in a gratitude journal improves sleep," Morin wrote.
Gratitude also "improves self-esteem...[and] increased athletes' self-esteem, an essential component to optimal performance. Other studies have shown that gratitude reduces social comparisons. Rather than becoming resentful toward people who have more money or better jobs -- a major factor in reduced self-esteem -- grateful people are able to appreciate other people's accomplishments."
While it strengthens relationships, provides health benefits, leads to better sleep and performance, it also "increases mental strength... recognizing all that you have to be thankful for -- even during the worst times -- fosters resilience." Washington and Lincoln must have been aware of these benefits, even though the scientific studies touting gratitude's benefits had not yet been performed. During hard and challenging times, these leaders turned again and again toward God and gave thanks for the blessings they had been given. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. A time to gather with family over a meal, to share what we are grateful for, without all the fuss and festivity of other holidays. No presents are swapped, no all-night celebrations fueled by champagne, just a simple meal with the focus on family and giving thanks.
I am glad to know that it is good for me, too. Enjoy your Thanksgiving and feel better after giving thanks.