Given how difficult the last nine months have been for all of us, I intend to look forward this year and be thankful for what I see on the horizon.

Our modern conception of Thanksgiving is deeply imbued with thoughts about food, family, and football.  It is an old holiday by American standards, and the customs and mythology that surround it have evolved considerably over the last four centuries.  Our current circumstances will inevitably shape Thanksgiving 2020, and I am hoping that this year’s Thanksgiving allow us to focus on the future and all the reasons we have to be thankful for what is to come.

The earliest American Thanksgivings were vestiges of the European traditions that marked the end of the harvest season.  The first Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1621 with an autumn harvest feast shared by the Plymouth colonists and members of the Wampanoag nation.  For almost one hundred and seventy years there were no specific dates or practices assigned to Thanksgiving celebrations, and they were generally organized and led by church leaders.  During the Revolutionary War, political leaders first seized on Thanksgiving proclamations to advance their partisan causes. 

President George Washington declared the first national day of Thanksgiving in order to acknowledge “with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God.”  That first nationally-recognized Thanksgiving was held on November 26, 1789, which was 231 years to the day before this year’s Thanksgiving will be celebrated.  That specific day was chosen because it commemorated the day the British Army finally exited the U.S. after the Revolutionary War.

The exact day that Thanksgiving would be celebrated was changed by President Lincoln in 1863 to celebrate the North’s military successes in the Civil War.  In 1939, in the midst of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt shifted Thanksgiving to the second to the last Thursday in November to help spur retail sales and officially kick off the Christmas holiday buying season.  Then, two years later and only a few weeks after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he moved it to the fourth Thursday of November.

As an historian, I cannot help but wonder how Thanksgiving 2020 and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic might change the way that we celebrate the holiday.  We are being asked to celebrate at home and curtail traveling, and for many of us the four days away from the computer screen will come as a welcome relief.  The Largent family’s turkey arrived on our doorstep yesterday, delivered by a “front line worker,” as citizens employed by grocery stores and other “essential businesses” have come to be called.  And my family will follow the CDC’s recommendations and celebrate safely through phone calls and Facetime visits instead of long car trips and airplane flights.

Traditionally, Thanksgiving has been a time to celebrate retrospectively.  That is, it has been a time to take stock of the spoils of harvests or wars and be thankful for our bounty.  Given how difficult the last nine months have been for all of us, I intend to look forward this year and be thankful for what I see on the horizon.

The last two weeks have offered us news to celebrate about the potential of vaccines against the novel coronavirus.  It is reasonable to expect that we will begin a vaccination campaign before the end of the calendar year.  The efficacy rates of these new vaccines are extraordinarily high, and we appear to be poised to produce many millions of doses in the coming months.  Public health authorities are telling us that the second half of 2021 could be far more normal than the first half of the year.

A long and divisive election season will inevitably come to a close when the electoral college meets next month and when a new House and Senate are seated and a new president is inaugurated in January.  The political parties appear ready and willing to work together in more collaborative ways than they have in recent months, and there is a full docket of issues for them to address.

As difficult as the summer and fall semesters have been, we have learned a great deal about how to teach and learn in the online environment.  Faculty have sharpened their online teaching skills and students have developed greater capacities to balance synchronous and asynchronous courses and engage in a remote learning environment.  All of these lessons will help us have an even better spring semester.

We are only four weeks from the winter solstice, the shortest and darkest day of the year.  Then, the days slowly begin to grow longer.  As much as I am looking forward to seeing snow on the ground soon, I am likewise looking forward to spring and the renewal that it brings.  And I’m thankful in the knowledge that spring will come.

Feedback and suggestions, especially from the MSU community, welcome: email largent@msu.edu.

Mark Largent is the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education and Dean of Undergraduate Studies at Michigan State University.