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Legislative Report: The forgotten American Thanksgiving holiday has rich historical roots

By Rep. Kim Koppleman

With unprecedented focus on Halloween and the Christmas shopping season following quickly on its heels, it seems that the great American holiday, Thanksgiving, is quickly being forgotten. As we approach this annual tradition, it’s important to recall the distinctly American history of Thanksgiving.

Most may know something about the Pilgrims—that group of early settlers who came to what was, for them, a new world. They celebrated what most of us refer to as the first Thanksgiving, with the natives as their guests. They paused to give thanks to God for safety and blessings.

In 1789, our first president, George Washington, was urged by Congress to “recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”

Some would find such an act by Congress today to be unusual or perhaps even unacceptable. It was this very Congress, however, that had just given us a Constitution which both guaranteed that the United States would have no official national church or religion (as so many European nations and had at the time) and that, in America, people would be free to practice their faith without interference or hindrance from the government.

On October 3, with the newly minted Bill of Rights on his desk, Washington issued a proclamation setting aside Thursday, November 26, as America’s first Thanksgiving. It includes an admonition “That we may then all unite in rendering unto him (God) our sincere and humble thanks”

Although days of Thanksgiving were proclaimed in America both before and after Washington’s proclamation, It was 74 years later that President Lincoln made Thanksgiving the annual American holiday we know it as today.

His 1863 proclamation began, “The year that is drawing towards 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 cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.”

After references to the civil war which had embroiled the nation at the time, he highlighted the “gracious gifts of the Most High God,” adding “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.”

The tradition of Thanksgiving is not just a national one. In 1881 (eight years before North Dakota became a state), Nehemiah G. Ordway, governor of Dakota Territory, issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation for the territory. In it, he quoted the national Thanksgiving Proclamation which had just been issued by President Chester A. Arthur. Governor A.J. Faulk replicated the practice five years later.

You may want to read Washington and Lincoln’s famous proclamations, in their entirety. They are poignant, historical reminders of what our American Thanksgiving holiday is all about.

We have the opportunity to refuse to allow Thanksgiving to be a forgotten Holiday, this year; to remember its rich historical roots, and to pause and, as Washington, Lincoln, and many other American leaders have suggested, be thankful to God for our many blessings.

Your legislators appreciate hearing from you. You may reach us by mail, e-mail, or telephone: Sen. Judy Lee (; 282-6512); Rep. Alon Wieland (; 282-9470); Rep. Kim Koppelman (; 282-9267).