Most cultures have a day of gratefulness and introspection, not that people always notice. One of the characteristics of the modern era is the tendency to overstate one’s personal accomplishments and understate what rightly attributed to luck, to the work of others and perhaps to a higher life force of power.
The US holiday called Thanksgiving was meant to be just that. Yes, there were Pilgrims, and there was reportedly a feast to celebrate survival of illness and famine, but the holiday really has nothing to do with that.
The first National Proclamation of a day of Thanksgiving was in 1777. It was declared by the Continental Congress to celebrate the rebel victory at the Battle of Saratoga.
The second such day was proclaimed after the House of Commons voted to end the Revolutional War and let the US colonies go.
The third was proclaimed by President George Washington in 1792. However, these were all individual days — basically one-and-done — and were not formal work holidays. (In a farming economy, when exactly is there a work holiday?)
John Adams and James Madison also issued proclamations for a day of Thanksgiving, although Adams called it a “day of fasting and humiliation.”
Thanksgiving as we know it was declared by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, following the turning points of the American Civil War (Gettysburg and Vickburg) and prior to his delivery of the Gettysburg Address. Every president since has copied his example. Congress formalized the celebration on the fourth Thursday in November in 1941.
Lincoln actually proclaimed four such days, starting in 1862. The November celebration is associated with his second proclamation in 1863.
What Lincoln wrote:
By the President of the United States of America
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.
In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict, while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.
Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.
No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.
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 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, tranquillity, and union.
In testimony whereof I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the city of Washington, this 3d day of October, A. D. 1863, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.
By the President:
WILLIAM H. SEWARD, Secretary of State.
That presents a dilemma for those who want to maintain the history of the Confederate States of America (statues, etc.). The holiday celebrates their defeat.