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Thanksgiving: The Heart of America

Tomorrow, our nation will celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving, though for many this will be a very different Thanksgiving than in years past. 2020 has been a difficult year for many of us, and while families may be unable to gather together due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we all need to make sure we remember the blessings in our lives, and thank God for them.

After all, that is what the holiday of Thanksgiving is all about, according to author Melanie Kirkpatrick in her new book Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience. Kirkpatrick joins Traci DeVette Griggs on a special Thanksgiving episode of the Family Policy Matters radio show and podcast to share some snippets from her book.

While Thanksgiving is not an explicitly Christian holiday—in fact, Kirkpatrick makes the point that the holiday is unique in its appeal to people of any and all faiths—its first celebration was by Christian people who wanted to give thanks to God, and to share their blessings with those around them.

“One of the things I learned in researching Thanksgiving,” says Kirkpatrick, “was that the idea of helping the less fortunate has been closely tied with the holiday, almost since the beginning. […] Generosity is an American trait in general, but I think around Thanksgiving, it really peaks.”

In what has been a turbulent time for our nation, it can seem difficult to be thankful and generous to others, especially those with whom we disagree. But Kirkpatrick points to history to show how Thanksgiving has been used to promote peace and reunification in our nation. “Our modern-day Thanksgiving began in the middle of the Civil War,” she says. President Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1863 “called on Americans to, ‘with one heart and one voice,’ celebrate, to give thanks, and come together.”

Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Melanie Kirkpatrick share some interesting and little-known facts about the history of Thanksgiving in our nation.


Family Policy Matters
Transcript: Thanksgiving: The Heart of America

TRACI GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience, that’s the name of the book written by today’s guest. The book synopsis reads, “Award-winning author, Melanie Kirkpatrick journeys through four centuries of history, giving us a vivid portrait, drawing on newspaper accounts, private correspondence, historical documents, and cookbooks.”

Melanie Kirkpatrick is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a long-time member of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board.

Melanie Kirkpatrick, welcome to Family Policy Matters.

MELANIE KIRKPATRICK: It’s such a pleasure to be with you.

TRACI GRIGGS: Start off by telling us what makes Thanksgiving such a unique and American holiday.

MELANIE KIRKPATRICK: Lots of countries have harvest festivals where people gather in the autumn to celebrate the harvest and give thanks. But America’s is special because it’s linked with a lot of events in our history, as I learned when I researched it for my book. And I also think there is one distinct difference that would be of special interest to your readers, which is that Thanksgiving is a holiday in America that can be celebrated by people of any faith and of all faith and also of no faith. It’s a religious holiday, but it doesn’t specify which religions can and cannot celebrate it.

One of the things I learned in researching Thanksgiving was that the idea of helping the less fortunate has been closely tied with the holiday, almost since the beginning. Just a few years after the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth, Massachusetts, another town, another English settlement in Massachusetts known as Scituate, had a Thanksgiving celebration. And it’s the first written record of celebrating Thanksgiving by helping the less fortunate. And it says that after the church service, they had a meal, and the richer sort helped the poorer sort. I really loved that image, and it’s stuck with us throughout the centuries. Generosity is an American trait in general, but I think around Thanksgiving, it really peaks, and people in the industry of philanthropy call Thanksgiving “the start of the giving season,” and surely it is. Americans have not just the highest rate of giving in America and the world, but the highest rate of volunteering. And there are certainly, I don’t know the percentage, but certainly a high percentage of people who do volunteer work are motivated by their own religious faith.

TRACI GRIGGS: I wish I could say we have no reason to remind people about the origins of Thanksgiving, but perhaps a just very brief refresher would be in order, if you would.

MELANIE KIRKPATRICK: Sure. I think you mean the pilgrims and the Native Americans.

TRACI GRIGGS: I think that’s what we all remember from school.

MELANIE KIRKPATRICK: Right. And, you know, the basic story of the pilgrims and the Indians is accurate. Sometime in the autumn of 1621, just after the first harvest that the English, the pilgrims, had in the New World, they sat down for a celebration. We know it was a three-day celebration, and about half the pilgrims had died in the first year that they were in America. They died of the elements—it was very cold here—or lack of nutrition or disease. So, they were just a small number, about 50. And there are two eyewitness accounts written by pilgrims of the event. And they mentioned that 90 Indian men came to celebrate with them. And the men brought with them three deer, which would have been enough to feed everybody for several days. So, that was the basic story. And it is true that the settlers in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the pilgrims and the Native Americans who lived nearby, the Wampanoag people, had a very good relationship, and it was a peaceful, profitable friendship for the two peoples for a number of years. But it eventually devolved into war. And as we know, the Native Americans were decimated. And so, today you hear people complaining about Thanksgiving as a holiday that celebrates the murder of Native Americans, and that is incorrect. The holiday represented a moment in time before the violence began. And I think it points the way to the better people that we all have become, a better time that we all now live in.

TRACI GRIGGS: That’s a great way to put it. There are some surprising things in your book. So, what are some things that many of us may not know about that event?

MELANIE KIRKPATRICK: Well, speaking of the pilgrims and the Native Americans, one of the things I learned was that in those two eye witness accounts of the first Thanksgiving that I mentioned a minute ago, there’s no mention of the word Thanksgiving. And it wasn’t until three years later in 1624, from the pilgrim’s point of view, the first Thanksgiving was celebrated. The Thanksgiving was called in July of 1624, I think, and it was to rejoice, to give thanks to God for a rainfall that had saved their crops. There had been a long drought since they planted, and this rainfall made it possible for their crops to grow. And it saved the community because it meant that come fall, they would have food to keep them through the winter.

TRACI GRIGGS: Thanksgiving has actually been controversial at various times in American history, hasn’t it? Tell us about that.

MELANIE KIRKPATRICK: It’s just one of the most interesting things I’ve learned in my research. In 1789, when the first Congress of the United States was meeting in New York City, which was then the Capitol of the United States. They had been meeting for many months, debating the Constitution and how to implement it. And they decided that, the Congress decided, they wanted to take a break and thought it would be appropriate for President Washington to declare a Thanksgiving Day. Now, this set off a vehement debate in the first Congress for two reasons. Some in Congress believed that asking the president to declare Thanksgiving was unconstitutional. Why? Because the president, they said, did not have the authority to do that. That kind of authority was left to the governors of the 13 States, not to a central authority in Washington. And the second reason that people raised objections to the president calling a Thanksgiving was, it was a religious holiday, was the argument. And because it was a religious holiday, that was outside the purview of the federal government. The president did not have the authority to intervene in any way in religious matters. Well, in the end we don’t know the exact vote, Congress voted to ask the President to declare a Thanksgiving Day. And then Washington did something that just shows what a great man he was. He issued his proclamation, and it was the first presidential proclamation, by the way; he issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation. And then, he sent it to every governor, and instead of ordering them to call a Thanksgiving Day, he requested them to do so. So, what he was doing was indicating to everybody that he wasn’t usurping any authority. He was enlisting the governors to do this, not telling them to do it.

Then the second thing he did that was terrific was, in his two Thanksgiving Proclamations—he also issued one a couple of years later—he made it clear that Thanksgiving was opened to Americans of all religions. It wasn’t just a Christian holiday. And I thought that was wonderful too. And most presidents have followed that example, though some governors have not.

This was curious as well, and there may even be some listeners here who will remember back as far as the 1930s and early 40s when this happened. But in 1939, Roosevelt changed the date of Thanksgiving. It had always been the last Thursday of the month, and he changed it to an earlier date, the third Thursday, I think. And this set off a big eruption in the country and traditionalists fighting against the idea of anybody tinkering with the sacred subject of Thanksgiving. And half the country ended up celebrating Thanksgiving on their traditional date, and the other half celebrated on the date that Roosevelt named. And eventually they worked it out. And in 1941, Congress passed a resolution making Thanksgiving into a law. Before it hadn’t been in law, it was just up to the president to decide. And Thanksgiving, after 1941, has always been the fourth Thursday of November.

TRACI GRIGGS: Right, very interesting. Thank you. So, this of course has been a challenging year for all of us. What did Thanksgiving look like during other turbulent and divided times in our nation’s history?

MELANIE KIRKPATRICK: Our modern-day Thanksgiving began in the middle of the Civil War. And if there is a more turbulent period in our history, I can’t think of it. Certainly, Americans fighting Americans is a much more turbulent time than what we are experiencing, even today. So, Lincoln, I thought did something very beautiful, in 1863, he issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation at the urging of a woman by the name of Sarah Josepha Hale. She was editor of the most popular magazine of America, which in itself is a fantastic story. And for 30 years, she had been conducting a campaign in the pages of her magazine to get a president to declare a national Thanksgiving Day. She thought that if all Americans celebrated, gave thanks, sat down, and thought about the blessings of liberty, and did it all together on the same day, that a civil war could be avoided. Of course, she was wrong, and war began. But, in ‘63 Lincoln liked the idea that she had, and in response to a letter from her, he issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation. He had a beautiful phrase in it, he called on Americans to “with one heart and one voice” to celebrate, to give thanks, come together and give thanks. He knew that the war was on, but it was clear at this point that the Union was going to win and that the country would be back together again at some period. And so, Lincoln’s message was looking forward to that time when Americans would all come together again as one nation, and it’s a beautiful message to send in the middle of the blood and the fighting that was going on.

TRACI GRIGGS: Thank you. We’re just about out of time for this week. I hope people will check out your book because it has more of this history. It has traditions and even some recipes in there. Melanie, where can our listeners go to get a copy of your book?

MELANIE KIRKPATRICK: Oh, well thank you for asking. It’s available on Amazon and also at

TRACI GRIGGS: Melanie Kirkpatrick, author of Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience, thank you for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.

MELANIE KIRKPATRICK: Enjoyed speaking to you. Thank you for the opportunity.

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