This week, I spent Thanksgiving working at Kitt Peak National Observatory. My family was able to join me and we spent the holiday in one of the small houses on the mountain. We ate dinner at the cafeteria, where they served a modest but essentially traditional meal of turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, and pie. I spent the night helping to observe material between galaxies in galactic clusters. My daughters came up to help me both on Thanksgiving and the night before. Here we see my youngest at the WIYN telescope at Kitt Peak as we were opening for a night’s work.
Earlier in the week, I had the opportunity to have dinner with my oldest niece and her lovely family. I was able to meet my grand niece and grand nephew for the first time. I would have enjoyed spending more time with them, but I am definitely thankful schedules worked out that we could see them.
I was curious to learn a little more how this holiday came about. Of course, the traditional story is that it started in November 1621 when the settlers at Plymouth, Massachusetts celebrated their first successful corn harvest with the help of the Wampanoag tribe in the area. Governor William Bradford called for three days of Thanksgiving. As part of the celebration, he sent out a party to go fowling, to bring back game birds for the feast. Whether they actually had Turkey is anyone’s guess.
What I was less familiar with was that George Washington made the first official Thanksgiving Proclamation, declaring that Thursday, November 26, 1789 would be a day of Thanksgiving to celebrate the successful end of the American Revolution and the ratification of the United States Constitution. Many presidents carried on the tradition of making Thanksgiving Proclamations, but it didn’t become a regular holiday until Abraham Lincoln made it so during the height of the Civil War. In Lincoln’s proclamation, he asked all Americans to pray to God and “commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” and to “heal the wounds of the nation.”
This year, with all the “black Friday” ads that have poured into my email box, I feel like Thanksgiving has become the preliminary event to an orgiastic weekend of shopping. It’s sure a far cry from celebrating a bountiful harvest or remembering those who strove to make the United States a great nation. It makes me glad I was able to spend the weekend on a remote mountaintop with my family and with astronomers I’ve come to know well enough they feel like family, and look to the stars and dream of the future.