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Buss: Thanksgiving Day is really about unity

It feels like Thanksgiving might disappear. But it shouldn't.

It has become more common to hear that people aren’t observing the holiday because it celebrates the conquest and disease brought to the New World by Europeans and doesn’t accurately portray the complicated relationship between American settlers and Native Americans. 

The pandemic also put the kibosh on some family traditions that might be hard to ramp back up.

And Thanksgiving is also apparently not a big boost for retailers. Christmas starts right after Halloween in advertising, too.

But the version of Thanksgiving we observe today has more to do with America’s fight for equality — and its search for unity — than with its contentious origins or turkey dinners.

President Abraham Lincoln issued the first Thanksgiving Proclamation on October 3, 1863, just three months after the deadliest battle in U.S. history, the Battle of Gettysburg. It was the height of the Civil War, with the outcome yet unknown.

Despite all of that, he believed the American people had much to be grateful for.

That the fierce division over slavery and secession hadn’t utterly destroyed the nation, its economy or its population were gifts Lincoln believed should be “solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.”

It doesn’t seem much more complicated than that. 

The proclamation goes on to establish the fourth Thursday of November every year as the day to give thanks to the source of these blessings, “our beneficent Father.” 

There is nothing in there about the Mayflower, turkey, Pilgrims or Native Americans. 

In fact, Lincoln’s only reference to the nation’s history was to acknowledge that even with its “sins,” it was still standing, and that outside the battlefield, the rule of law remained — despite deep, bloody division. 

He didn’t issue a recitation of America’s past or its triumphs, but rather a humble request to a higher power to restore the nation’s unity. 

America’s history is complicated. It is full of injustices — slavery and war among the worst.

But Lincoln sought to honor the determination of so many to fight for equality, despite the massive cost, which he understood well when he established it as a holiday.

It was an opportunity to remind Americans that should their country survive, they must forgive and look to the future.

“I ... 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, tranquility, and Union,” he wrote.

Many people don’t like tradition for the sake of it. It can be stuffy and depressing to do the same thing every year without feeling invested in it.

But Thanksgiving isn’t one without meaning, and not one we should toss out.

Whatever partnership existed between Native Americans and English settlers contains valuable lessons, but that particular coming together — nor our turkey dinners — isn't what today is necessarily about.

It’s an opportunity for Americans to be grateful despite challenges, and to work toward being united despite differences.

Twitter: @KaitlynBuss