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Editorial: Messages of Thanksgiving along a lazy river

The messy storm that barreled across the country this week no doubt affected travel plans to visit extended family this Thanksgiving holiday. Disappointing, for sure. And yet, at dinner tables across the region and beyond, collections of families and friends — and strangers, in the case of the many community dinners offered in church basements and community centers — will share food and give thanks.

Amid disappointment, loss and heartache, there is a natural human inclination to focus more on what we have than what we’ve lost.

A story on Thursday’s front page details an effort spearheaded by a Northampton woman to create a public space in which people can express feelings of gratitude. Since it was launched around Thanksgiving two years ago, the gratitude line strung from trees in a clearing along the Mill River has inspired hundreds of messages scrawled on squares of cloth and hung for all to see.

Thanksgiving is a time to focus on the glass that’s at least half full.

For many, the day is synonymous with family togetherness, and yet many use it to show concern for others.

And these days, traditional notions of family have broadened, widened and deepened. For the purpose of this holiday, family is much more than shared bloodlines. For many, it is as simple as who takes a seat at the table.

Thanksgiving has been a national holiday since 1863, celebrated as a day to give thanks for the harvest on the fourth Thursday in November.

It started out has a celebration with strong religious overtones. In 1782, the Continental Congress declared a national day of thanksgiving, a practice continued ever since. The proclamation declaring the first national day of thanksgiving on Nov. 28, 1782, was filled with religious language urging “supplications to Almighty God.”

The proclamation further encouraged “all ranks to testify their gratitude to God for His goodness by a cheerful obedience to His laws and by promoting, each in his station, and by his influence, the practice of true and undefiled religion, which is the great foundation of public prosperity and national happiness.”

In 1789, President George Washington issued a Thanksgiving proclamation that asked God “to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed ... and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord ....”

Underneath those religious trappings lie themes that come into play in today’s Thanksgiving celebrations, a decidedly secular holiday celebrated by people of all faiths, or none at all.

In plainer language, these proclamations encourage people to express their gratitude for government that is wise and just, the practice of “undefiled religion” (which would include the practice of no religion at all), all of which is the foundation for peace and “national happiness.”

At the Mill River gratitude line this week, one can read a wide range of bittersweet, anonymous messages, some light-hearted and others somber, yet all giving thanks.

Writers express gratitude for the ocean and other examples of natural beauty. They make note of family, relationships, addictions, people they’ve lost, struggles they’ve endured.

The messages are a poignant collection of life experiences that show gratitude is not without suffering, but it is universal.

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