The first American Thanksgivings took place in the first two permanent colonies: at Berkeley Plantation on the James River, Va., December 4, 1619, and at Plymouth, Mass., July 30, 1621.
New York was the first state to establish an official Thanksgiving, in 1830.
The first Southern state to establish one was Virginia, in 1855. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln established a presidential national Thanksgiving, to be observed the last Thursday of each November. In 1939, Franklin Roosevelt changed the date to the fourth Thursday of November. Congress made it an official federal holiday in 1941.
The link of Thanksgiving's creation and observance to acts of government, thus, has been present since its beginnings. It is one of those rare instances, much like the "In God We Trust" motto on U.S. coins, in which religious purposes are explicitly served by government enactments. Religious and secular goals coalesce comfortably in this holiday.
The Pilgrims arrived in 1620, set ashore on the rocky coast of New England. They had expected to land further south, but destiny blew them north. It was, to those used to English towns, a true wilderness, teeming with "savages" and bad weather, with soil too poor to grow good crops.
Half of their number died that first year. There is great irony in these God-loving people finding themselves in what had to seem the most God-forsaken corner of the earth.
Yet they came together to give thanks. Those who had survived had that for which to be thankful.
In Lincoln's day, something of the same irony prevailed. Things were going badly for the nation when he established Thanksgiving in 1863. The Civil War was well into its third year, America's young men were dying by the thousands, and reconciliation between South and North seemed impossible. Lincoln had dedicated the Gettysburg cemetery on Nov. 19, less than two weeks before his first presidential Thanksgiving.
Yet, they gave thanks.
And again, in 1939, America was still crushed by the Depression, Europe's nations were toppling under Hitler's invasions and Japanese military forces were sweeping across the Pacific.
And yet again, Americans gave thanks.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic and political and social turmoil, one hears this month echoes of those past hard times, making it natural for people to ask -- as they are -- "What is there this year to give thanks for?"
This is one of those years when we need to fall back on our history. Our forebears at Plymouth, in the Civil War, and in the Depression on the brink of World War II had it rougher than we do.
Their response was: Give thanks.
What most of them had were only their lives and each other -- little else. Not health, or material abundance, or savings, and scant food and shelter.
But they were alive -- even as graveyards around them filled. Whatever awful tests they were being put to, they remained hopeful and optimistic. They faced darkness with self-confidence. They appreciated the light more because of it.
They joined hands, bowed their heads, and then gave thanks. And then, they arose and went about setting things right.
Pollsters tell us that Americans have become ignorant of their own history. Appalling numbers are unable to answer the most elementary questions about our national past. That is tragic and dangerous.
Meanwhile, some eager-beaver politicos are preaching the virtues of starting from scratch, as if we were colonies again, and as if we did not have several hundred years of national history.
If we are to rise and walk again as a country, we need this year especially to be thankful for that history.
Be thankful that today's hard times make us rediscover our past. It is full of lessons and institutions we will be needing in the years ahead.
Sometime, the more things change, the more they stay the same. This editorial has been adapted for 2020 conditions, but its essential message is the same as when the majority of the words were written in 1995 by the late Wofford College professor Larry McGehee, whose "Southern Seen" column appeared regularly in The Times and Democrat.