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Thankful for home

| Tuesday, November 28, 2017

A lot of things run a bit differently here across the pond. One custom they (obviously) don’t celebrate over here is Thanksgiving. Given the day was originally in part a celebration of escaping the dear ole’ Brits, this wasn’t exactly unexpected, and I knew I would have to sacrifice my favorite holiday in order to have a semester abroad. I know, what a dismal life I have, spending months in Europe at the expense of a few hours of guiltless gluttony. Still, this week has been hitting me rather hard. While I am stuck in a country that goes straight from an underwhelming Halloween into an extravagant display of Christmas cheer, my distance has allowed me to analyze the holiday from a different perspective. When a stranger in a pub asked me (rather obnoxiously), “What have you Americans got to be so thankful for?”, I had to do some reflection. After all, it wouldn’t be hard — based on the news everyday — to assume America is in a situation of complete turmoil and we would be better off spending our time trying to pull ourselves together rather than stuffing our faces with food.

Perhaps it was this curiosity that spurred my research into articles and reflections on Thanksgiving online. What started by taking some Buzzfeed quizzes to discern what type of side-dish I would be ended in my stumbling across the Thanksgiving proclamations of past Presidents, featured in a New York Times piece on the holiday. Thanksgiving is a somewhat unique holiday in that the current President must announce it each year, and George Washington started these proclamations, asking Americans to unite in thanks for — among other things — “the peaceful and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government.” The tradition stalled for a period, but it was revitalized when Abraham Lincoln asked Americans to give thanks “with one heart and one voice” in the midst of the Civil War. These two great leaders were separated by a century filled with war, exploration, innovation and discovery; a century that took America from a rocky, unsure start to an established nation — a nation that had come so far only to see itself tearing apart at the seams. Washington wanted to use the collective thankfulness — for defeating the British, for establishing an unprecedented form of government, for forming a new national identity — to unite all of the new Americans, regardless of the political and constitutional strife that was happening in the early years of the republic. And Lincoln had more reason than any other to ask his fellow citizens to put aside hate, put aside petty loyalties and, if just for a moment, unite to give thanks for the blessings that abounded in America, even during the horrible war. The wielding of the day of Thanksgiving as an instrument of peace seems to have been instrumental throughout U.S. history.

One of the most poignant proclamations was Proclamation 3560 from John F. Kennedy in 1963: “Over three centuries ago, our forefathers in Virginia and in Massachusetts, far from home in a lonely wilderness, set aside a time of thanksgiving.” He then details what our forefathers gave thanks for: their safety, their fields, their children, concluding by noting “the love which bound them together.” He also quotes our first President, who asked for the creation of a day of thanksgiving and asked citizens “to pardon our national and other transgressions.” Kennedy, like his predecessors, recognized the unifying power of our special national holiday in a decade that was nearly as tumultuous as ours seems now. Proclamation 3561 was released just 19 days later, by Lyndon Johnson, signifying a national day of mourning in the wake of JFK’s assassination.

If nothing else, this bit of reading helped me form an answer to the random jerk in the bar who tried to undercut any pride I have for my country and our traditions. I’m not about to spit some fire truth about the path to national unity or profess to know the cure to the plethora of issues plaguing the U.S. The North and South didn’t just drop their arms at Lincoln’s words, and Kennedy’s professions of peace didn’t stop the bullet from killing him. It just seems to me that there is, and has always been, something to be said for designating a time to simply be thankful for the nation and opportunities we do have. It’s kind of reassuring to look back at some of the darkest times in our history and know that Thanksgiving has been a constant through the years. If we could get through those times, we might just have a shot today.

Happy (belated) Thanksgiving to all in the Notre Dame family.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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