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.
Still, the American desire to commit good deeds for strangers, most often expressed during the end-of-year holidays, was planted long ago, first by the Pilgrims but even more so by the Puritans. In his 1630 "Model of Christian Charity" sermon, John Winthrop told his flock heading for the Massachusetts wilderness that they must create a new society, one in which everyone should follow this: "If thy brother be in want and thou [can] help him, thou needst not make doubt of what thou shouldst do."
Today, as in those days, the "wants" from poverty are plenty. In the past few months, the number of Americans needing food stamps has hit record highs. And with parents moving in and out of jobs, a new study finds half of American kids will live in households receiving food stamps before the age of 20. About 4 percent of people experience real hunger.
Government largess isn't always enough – especially as state budgets are being slashed. Many more people need help from individuals and private social services. (An estimated 14 million people will be fed on Thanksgiving by charities this year.) And with donations down by nearly 10 percent, groups in the giving business are being forced to get creative.
They must be more efficient in the way they collect money (using the Internet). Close partnerships with government services can reduce wasteful spending. And now that many more people have time on their hands and less cash in their pockets, nonprofits are learning how to better tap volunteers (some 60 million Americans volunteer each year).
But what really motivates people to give either money or time? Strangely, the reasons break down by income.
Those earning less than $50,000 do it to meet the poor's basic needs or to help them help themselves, according to a recent survey by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. Those with incomes from $50,000 to $100,000 donate time or money "to make the world better." The wealthy give because "those with more should help those with less" or to "make [their] community better."
Whatever the purpose, giving from the heart can touch a heart in need. It can evoke the same gratitude as on that autumn day 388 years ago.
The chain of giving and thankfulness will go on, in recognition of a providing God who makes clear that it is indeed more blessed to give than to receive.