Why Thanksgiving Still Matters

Ask most Americans going home this week for Thanksgiving what the holiday means, and you're likely to hear some variation of gravy, grandma and gridiron.

While polling still indicates that Americans view Thanksgiving as a major holiday, the actual practice of "thanksgiving" seems to have become as antiquated as a Norman Rockwell depiction. To use the technical term, "thanksgiving" is defined by Webster's as "a public acknowledgment or celebration of divine goodness." Granted, the concept will strike many as a cultural antiquity, but there is a striking irony in the fact that the idea of "giving thanks" has been pushed the back burner in favor of the growing retail and greed bonanza known as "Black Friday".

Even as Americans are wearied by a sluggish economy, two wars and other difficulties, it's worth remembering that the concept of a "Thanksgiving holiday" has served as a touchstone throughout American history; not to ignore difficult times but rather to count our blessings despite them.

Consider the plight of President Lincoln in October 1863. Anticipating a difficult re-election that saw members of his own party express serious doubts about his ability to win, and still reeling from the staggering bloodshed at Gettysburg, Lincoln declared the third Thursday in November "as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens."

Particularly striking within the Lincoln declaration is the optimistic, even rosy report that he manages to provide amid the backdrop of utter carnage. He gives thanks for economic and population increases, even noting that despite the internal conflict, intervention from a foreign power hadn't come into play.

Lincoln's proclamation was the first time that "Thanksgiving" had been formally declared a national holiday. This stood until 1939, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, at the behest of retailers, had attempted to move the holiday back a week, hoping to expand the Christmas shopping season. If that sounds familiar, that's because history repeated itself this year, with several major stores announcing they would open on Thanksgiving itself -- a move that has been widely panned by consumers.

The result was a pitched political battle that rivaled some of the partisanship we've recently seen in Washington. Only 23 states joined the president in his economic driven gambit, and only 31 joined him the following year in 1940. Finally on Dec. 26, 1941, just days after the attacks on Pearl Harbor -- Congress codified the holiday as being the last Thursday of November.

Perhaps nothing underscores the spirit of thankfulness that the holiday is named for than the classic hymn "We Gather Together." Once a standard, often sung in schools, the song has faded in recent years, but still resonates as an anthem. Consider the lyrics to the opening stanza:

"We gather together to ask the Lord's blessing; He chastens and hastens His will to make known; The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing; Sing praises to His Name; He forgets not His own."

From its origins at Plymouth Rock, to the institution of a "day of Thanksgiving" by George Washington and national institution holiday in the shadow of Civil War. The idea of setting aside a day to "give thanks" has historically been one forged as we dealt with or emerged, chastened, from crisis.

This year, as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's proclamation, it's important that we as a nation acknowledge the cultural markers – a turkey, good friends and football; but we would be remiss not to also take a moment or two to give thanks for the multitude of blessings that come with living in the greatest nation on earth.

Joe Brettell is a former Capitol Hill aide and now a Republican public relations consultant. On Twitter – @joebrettell

Opinions expressed in this column do not reflect the views of ABC News.

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