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What's best on the Thanksgiving menu? Giving, of course.

For many people, the last Thursday of November is one of faith, feasting, family, friends, football, and fun. But it's also a measure of the American character for generosity.

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That first thanksgiving day in America, celebrated in 1621 by the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians, was far more than a day to give thanks.

The fall feast in Plymouth was also an occasion to give to others – gifts of joy and hope as well as one's bounty from a good harvest – in what would later be called "the Thanksgiving spirit."

By the time Abraham Lincoln declared it an annual holiday in 1863, Thanksgiving Day had evolved to become an ongoing measure of the American character for generosity, or acts of humble giving to others out of a gratitude for the goodness of God.

Sarah Josepha Hale, the crusading magazine editor of the early 19th century who championed the holiday, left no doubt of its purpose: "Let us each see to it that on this one day there shall be no family or individual, within the compass of our means to help, who shall not have some portion prepared, and some reason to join in the general Thanksgiving."

By 1879, a journalist in New York City wrote that "the destitute and the infirm, the prisoners and captives were abundantly fed" on Thanksgiving Day and "the Good Samaritan is out and about in every street."

Thus, by 2009 – and especially as the US comes out of a recession that has left many jobless – millions of Americans are planning to use a long Thanksgiving holiday to work in soup kitchens for the homeless, visit the elderly in nursing homes, or simply invite a familyless person to their homes for turkey and the fixings.

For many people, of course, the last Thursday of November is simply one of faith, feasting, family, friends, football, and fun. And maybe a nap.

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