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SideLines: Lincoln and the true meaning of Thanksgiving

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013 4:39 p.m. CDT

It’s an amazing speech.

On Nov. 22, 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered what has come to be known as the Gettysburg Address, one of the greatest and most important speeches any person has ever given about democracy.

In a patriotic mood, I decided to reread it last week, something I haven’t done since a high school history class many years ago. And then I read it again. The first time, I read it out of curiosity; the second, for pleasure. As a teenager, forced to read it as a classroom assignment, it didn’t mean that much to me. This time, as an adult on my own, I was moved by its power and majesty, by the beauty of the words. It’s a speech that defined us. It is us.

In her magnificent Lincoln biography, “Team of Rivals,” historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote that Lincoln’s three-minute, 272-word address “translated the story of his country and the meaning of the war into words and ideas accessible to every American ... an ideal of its past, present and future that would be recited and memorized by students forever.”

Memorable though it is, I seriously don’t know if students will be reciting it 25 million years from now. But whether by political design or mere coincidence, the nation celebrated its first official Thanksgiving a few days later, on Nov. 27, 1863. Lincoln established the holiday mainly at the urging of a 74-year-old magazine editor named Sarah Josepha Hale. (He was obviously having a pretty good week that week.)

“No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things (fruitful fields and healthful skies),” Lincoln proclaimed. “They are the gracious gifts of the most high God, who while dealing with us 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.”

The country had actually been celebrating a day of thanksgiving for almost 200 years by then, dating back to the Puritans, but had done so on a state by state basis. Thanks to Lincoln, this was the first time the entire union – except for some Southern states – celebrated together on the same day.

Both of those momentous events happened 150 years ago this month. Obviously, a lot has happened since then. Even more will happen in the next 150 years, including wars, inventions and discoveries in technology and medicine we can’t even begin to imagine right now. But whether it’s 1863, 2013, 2163 or even 25,000,013, there are certain things that will never change, that will always be important to us.

Besides life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, I’m referring to love, family, friends, home, security, jobs, health, nature and, the way things are going, a really good health insurance plan. Topping my own personal list is faith. These are the things we should always be thankful for and never forget.

As everyone knows, this Thursday is Thanksgiving. Sandwiched between Halloween and Christmas, it took me a long time to truly appreciate the meaning of the day. Growing up, eating turkey and mashed potatoes with my cousins at my grandparents’ house always paled to free candy and presents under a well-lit tree I helped decorate.

What it took me so long to realize is that Thanksgiving isn’t really about us. It’s also not about football or getting a jump on Chrismas shopping. To paraphrase Mr. Lincoln, Thanksgiving is a day of God, by God and for God that will never perish as long as there are human beings on earth – or the moon, or Mars, or wherever the future may take us.

And that’s even more amazing.

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