In the fall of 1789, the very first United States Congress, operating under our new nation’s new Constitution, passed a resolution recommending the establishment of a national day of thanksgiving. President George Washington promptly issued a proclamation setting aside Thursday, Nov. 26, 1789, for that observance.
In the decades that followed, subsequent Presidents issued Thanksgiving proclamations, although the dates of the observations varied considerably. Finally, in 1863, as the Civil War raged and the fate of our nation hung in the balance, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day for that year and for all the years to come. In addition to giving thanks, President Lincoln urged the American people to render aid and comfort to widows, orphans, and all who grieved and suffered as a consequence of that terrible conflict.
Today, Thanksgiving remains one of our most cherished traditions. With the 2015 holiday season now underway, we do well to remember that this time of celebration is rooted in the fundamental American qualities of gratitude and compassion.
At this special time of year, we are especially grateful to the brave men and women in our nation’s armed forces and to our veterans. We are grateful for their courage, devotion to duty, and sacrifice. And we give thanks to their families and loved ones, for they too sacrifice.
One of the great pleasures I enjoy representing Maine in the United States Senate is the opportunity to travel throughout our beautiful state. Whether I am visiting a business, a school, or a civic organization, I am always so impressed by the spirit of caring that unites us. In big cities and small towns, from the coast to the mountains, Mainers share a commitment to helping their neighbors in need.
For example, just a few days before this Thanksgiving, I visited the Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn. Since its inception more than 30 years ago, this remarkable organization has written an inspiring history of service and compassion, and has helped so many Maine children and seniors avoid hunger.
In early 1981, JoAnn and Ray Pike of Lewiston became concerned about the growing number of families and elderly in their community who were going hungry. Inspired by a newspaper story about an organization in Kansas City that received food donations from the food industry to distribute to those in need, the Pikes and their home prayer group turned concern into action.
On Palm Sunday of that year, the people of the twin cities of Lewiston-Auburn joined in a walkathon and raised $6,000. The Good Shepherd Food Bank was born. Today, it serves all 16 Maine counties, providing nourishment and hope to those in need throughout our State. Many food companies and volunteers help to provide more than 17 million pounds of food to 600 food relief agencies across our State, helping 178,000 Mainers receive the nutrition they need.
As a founding member of the Senate Hunger Caucus, I know that we have done much in Washington to improve food security, but there is much more to do. I also know that the real work of helping those in need is done in our communities by caring and dedicated citizens. It is so inspiring to know that throughout Maine – in schools, churches, businesses, and civic clubs – food donations are being collected and baskets prepared to ensure that no one goes hungry.
From George Washington on, every president has issued Thanksgiving proclamations. Few approached this annual task with as much eloquence and purpose as President Ronald Reagan. At a time when our national fabric is strained by division and rancor, his message from 1988 is especially relevant:
“The images of the Thanksgiving celebrations at America’s earliest settlement — of Pilgrim and Iroquois Confederacy assembled in festive friendship – resonate with even greater power in our own day. People from every race, culture, and creed on the face of the Earth now inhabit this land. Their presence illuminates the basic yearning for freedom, peace, and prosperity that has always been the spirit of the New World.”
Those who serve our country in uniform and all of the people throughout our great state who use their time and talents to make a real difference in their communities keep that spirit alive. We have so much to be thankful for and to celebrate this holiday season.