The United States has seen its share of weather-related catastrophes in 2011. At the beginning of year, several cities were pounded by blizzards, and snowfall amounts approached record totals in Chicago, Boston, and New York. In April and May, a super outbreak of tornadoes wreaked devastation across the South-Central United States, most notably in the city of Joplin, Missouri. Later in the spring, communities along the Missouri River and Mississippi River experienced some of the worst flooding of the past century. Hurricane Irene caused extensive damage along the Atlantic Coast in August, and rains from the storm flooded many areas of Vermont. Also, throughout the year wildfires have roared across the plains of Texas. Indeed, drought conditions now plague nearly 1/3 of the country and represent America’s costliest natural disaster of 2011.
Meanwhile, unemployment lingers in the national economy, and housing markets remain depressed. Demonstrators have gathered in urban centers across the country to protest the country’s financial institutions. In addition, three out of four Americans now believe the country is headed in the wrong direction.
In light of economic weakness, political malaise, and natural catastrophe, Americans may not be feeling particularly grateful this holiday season. Yet, history suggests that in times such as these giving thanks may be more important than ever.
The Origins of America’s Official Thanksgiving Holiday
In an era when women rarely had access to education, Sarah Josepha Hale devoted herself to private study and developed into a skillful, self-taught writer and editor. In her mid-twenties, she married a lawyer, David. However, 8 ½ years into their marriage David contracted pneumonia and died, leaving Sarah to raise their five children. Profoundly sorrowed by the loss of her husband, Sarah dressed in black for the rest of her life.
Following her husband’s death, Sarah Josepha Hale took on a number of writing and editing jobs to support her family. Owing to her novels, poems, and articles, she developed a national reputation and widespread readership. Most famously, she authored the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
Interestingly, this widow-in-mourning became a driving force behind America’s Thanksgiving holiday. Perhaps on account of lessons drawn from coping with personal tragedy, Sarah Josepha Hale was convinced of the benefits of pausing periodically to express gratitude for life’s blessings. Over the course 27 years, Hale touted the merits of a thanksgiving holiday in newspaper editorials. She also sent letters to every state governor and President lobbying for the institution of a national day of thanksgiving.
Hale’s efforts were largely ineffective. That is, until one of her letters reached the desk of President Abraham Lincoln. In the midst of the darkest and bloodiest chapter in American history, the Civil War, Lincoln read Hale’s appeal for the establishment of a thanksgiving holiday. Lincoln believed observing such a holiday would promote unity, reminding a divided nation of the many blessings shared by all. Influenced by Hale’s petition, President Lincoln issued a proclamation on October 3, 1863, officially designating the last Thursday in November as a national day of Thanksgiving (Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation).
When buffeted by adverse circumstances, people’s thoughts naturally center on life’s negatives. In these moments, leaders have a choice: they can commiserate with everyone else, or they can seek to change the mood by accentuating the positives and orientating others to appreciate the good things in life. As Thanksgiving approaches, call a team meeting. Express thanks to your teammates for their contributions
November 2011 during the past year. Then, mention a specific blessing for which you’re thankful and go around the room, giving each of your teammates an opportunity to do the same. By jointly counting your blessings, your team will have an opportunity to realign its attitude and will gain strength for facing whatever hardships surround it.