Not every Thanksgiving in America had the feeling of gratitude like Thanksgiving Day 100 years ago. That Thanksgiving 1919 was truly a blessed occasion. Our president was Woodrow Wilson, and his Thanksgiving Day proclamation was significant because America and the world had enjoyed their first full year of peace since 1914, when World War I broke out. Wilson’s nation had intervened. He idealistically called it “the war to make the world safe for democracy.” But it was hard to feel good about what had happened.
It was a vicious war. Pope Benedict XV declared it “the suicide of civilized Europe.” He was appalled that the world’s wealthiest nations had channeled their energies and best science and technology into a mass effort “to destroy one another with refinements of horror.” There seemed “no limit to the measure of ruin and of slaughter.”
The war was aptly described by socialist philosopher Sidney Hook (an atheist, ironically) as no less than “the second fall of man.”
Yes, religious metaphor seemed to best capture the calamity that America and the world had faced. Historian Michael Hull argued that World War I was, in a perverse way, arguably more horrible than World War II. The difference was the absolute waste of lives. “The horrors of World War I,” wrote Hull, “exceeded those of World War II in terms of the sheer futility of squandered lives.”
Never in history had so many lives been shredded.
Hull invoked the image of O Cristo das Trincheiras (“The Christ of the Trenches”). This was a life-size statue of Jesus Christ hung with arms outstretched on a tall wooden cross erected on the Western Front. Soiled, bullet-scarred, it was given by the French to the government of Portugal after the war to memorialize the thousands of Portuguese decimated at the Battle of Flanders. Today, The Christ of the Trenches looks down upon the tomb of the Portuguese Unknown Soldier at the priory of Santa Maria da Vitoria (St. Mary of Victory) in Batalha, Portugal. As Hull suggests, the Crucified One is an appropriate symbol for the millions who gave their lives in this rotten war.
All of which brings us back to Thanksgiving Day 1919 and why Woodrow Wilson was so particularly thankful that year. “The season of the year has again arrived when the people of the United States are accustomed to unite in giving thanks to Almighty God for the blessings which he has conferred upon our country,” said Wilson. “We look forward with confidence to the dawn on an era where the sacrifices of the nations will find recompense in a world at peace.” As the American people gave thanks to God, they should also “reconsecrate themselves to those principles of right which triumphed through his merciful goodness.”
Wilson affirmed: “During the past year we have had much to make us grateful. … We should strive to aid by our example and by our cooperation in realizing the enduring welfare of all peoples and in bringing into being a world ruled by friendship and goodwill.”
Wilson concluded by declaring that Nov. 27, 1919, was to be “a day of thanksgiving and prayer by my fellow countrymen, inviting them to cease on that day from their ordinary tasks and to unite in their homes and … places of worship in ascribing praise and thanksgiving to God the Author of all blessings.”
There is much that could be said about this. But beyond the history lesson, what should strike us about Wilson’s proclamation and other presidential Thanksgiving proclamations, from George Washington on, is how religious these statements were.
Read more at National Catholic Register