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Thanksgiving at a time of war

Presidents often use this holiday to rally the nation, reflecting the Puritans more than the Pilgrims.

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Americans may welcome Thanksgiving as a precious time to be with family and friends – and to reach out to the less-well-off in their community. But they often forget that this tradition of celebrating in gratitude was set with an additional purpose for the whole country by its leaders.

That purpose is often made explicit during wartime, when American presidents have used Thanksgiving to overcome divisions and renew patriotism.

It was President Lincoln who finally created a Thursday in November as a regular national holiday, after years of urgings by Christian reformers who wanted it as a way to spread virtue in home life. But Lincoln did so during the darkest days of the Civil War, taking what was then only a tradition in New England and Texas and saying in his 1863 proclamation that the holiday was for "the whole American people." (The South didn't embrace it until decades later.)

Now in 2007, after the long years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Bush is asking in his Thanksgiving Proclamation for the nation to stand behind the American soldiers "who defend liberty ... [and] advance the cause of freedom." That he would cite those two lofty causes at a time of divided opinion about the Iraq war fits a pattern of presidents using Thanksgiving to unify Americans.

George Washington set a day for thanksgiving to buck up the Colonies during the Revolutionary War. In 1789, as a new nation tried to rally around a much-debated Constitution, the first president then set aside Nov. 26 of that year as "A Day of Publick Thanksgiving and Prayer."

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