I have a theory (not yet proven) that there may be an alternative to the usual escape into the turkey- and football-induced coma that it takes to survive the punishing socio-political divide in my family. Step one in figuring out how to connect with a true spirit of Thanksgiving has been to look at how we got this holiday.
It seems there was a day (or three) of feasting and giving thanks among both the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag late in the year of 1621, but at that time national days of thanksgiving were simply proclaimed on an as-needed basis, on into the late 1800s and beyond. In 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln's Thanksgiving Proclamation began a tradition of year-by-year presidential notices to the country to give thanks, usually at the end of November or beginning of December. Thanksgiving's status as legal holiday was only conferred in 1941.
It's possible Lincoln was influenced, writes Karen Nelte, by "Sarah Josepha Hale, a magazine editor, (who) had been writing editorials and letters to governors and presidents campaigning for an annual national day of Thanksgiving for many years (different sources say 20 to 40) when Lincoln made his proclamations. On October 20, 1864, Lincoln again set the final Thursday in November as a national Thanksgiving Day. Andrew Johnson followed with a Thanksgiving on December 7, 1865 (celebrating the Union victory)."
"Since then each President has issued annual proclamations of national Thanksgiving. Most were for the last Thursday in November until 1939, when Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving one week earlier to allow for a longer Christmas retail season. Public uproar against this decision caused him to move it back in 1941. On November 26, 1941, Roosevelt signed a bill that established the fourth Thursday in November as the national legal holiday of Thanksgiving."
In parallel with the war in Iraq, the past two years of Red vs. Blue struggle to claim the moral identity of this country has been a polarizing ideological civil war. I hadn't realized how beaten down by the political climate I felt until the relief of election night's arrival last week. Anticipating the end of the Civil War still two years away, Lincoln's Thanksgiving Proclamation acknowledges gratitude for munificence received from the land and submits a plea for healing and restoration:
"The year that is drawing toward 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 can not fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God....
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 imposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the divine purpose, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity, and union."
I believe with Lincoln that our thanks for our great fortune as a country "should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American People." And that is why I plan to reach across the aisle in my own family, to find ways to commune, with gratitude, over our shared meal.
I'm going to ask my mom and my grandmother and my aunts (of course it's all the women making the meal!) to see if we can make a traditional Michigan Thanksgiving. Differences in the family socio-political landscape aside, we have a long shared family history in Michigan as common ground. Since we all shrink from the responsibility of saying a meaningful grace, I'm planning ahead to bring a blessing to read that will get at least three people choked up. Having found myself getting teary many times over the past week (anyone hear the entire audience singing America the Beautiful on Prairie Home Companion last Saturday?), I'm going to refuse to gloat or feel too secure in the final victory of the election, for in truth, as states like California proved, there are many battles for justice and basic civil rights still ahead.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said "When our days become dreary with low hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice."
This year, it's enough to see that he was right, that dark days have called forth the creative force, and that we've miraculously chosen hope over fear. It seems that the Great Archer has taken up the bow and pulled back its string.