Giving Thanks, and Giving Back

In 1621, the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast that is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies. For more than 200 years, days of thanksgiving were celebrated by individual colonies and states. But it wasn’t until 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be held each November.

He was encouraged in that act by one particular woman, prominent 19th century writer and editor Sarah Josepha Hale, who penned “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” who helped found American Ladies Magazine and who, as its editor, turned “Godey’s Lady Book” into one of the most influential periodicals in the country. New Hampshire-born, she grew up celebrating Thanksgiving every year and wrote often about the holiday — in a novel, in editorials and in articles.

She was an ardent advocate of setting aside one day a year to express one’s gratitude, and she was tenacious, too: Hale campaigned for a national day of Thanksgiving to five different presidents over the course of 17 years, until Lincoln finally accepted her proposal.

This year, at Agnes Irwin’s annual Thanksgiving assembly, three students shared what Thanksgiving means to them, much in the vein of that early champion of giving thanks. You can read excerpts of their remarks below.

Thanksgiving AssemblyMiddle School chorus sings at Agnes Irwin’s annual Thanksgiving assembly

“Thanksgiving to me is a time to share with others, feel happiness, and a time to be with family. The reason I like to give to others is because it makes me feel good. Helping families who don’t have enough for big Thanksgiving dinners is a generous and kind thing to do. I send letters to Roza, the girl I sponsor in Armenia, and it’s like we have a special relationship. For me sharing and helping others is one of the best things I can do.”

— Fourth grader Olivia Stephan

“Normally when we think about Thanksgiving, we think of turkey, mashed potatoes, football, Charlie Brown, pilgrims, and fall colors. … We do need to give thanks on Thanksgiving, but one way we could do this is by giving to others. Instead of stuffing our already-filled stomachs with more pumpkin pie, why not take a piece or two to someone else? Why not, instead of complaining about how the weather is bad, or how you can’t possibly get anything done before the rush of the holidays, go to a retirement home and hand out gifts? Could it be that people are losing the true meaning of the holidays? Because if we are, we aren’t just losing out on more opportunities to reach out to people — we are losing out on a tradition centuries old.”

— Eighth grader Taylor Carter

“When you go around the table to say what you are grateful for, it is important to remember to act upon the words that you speak. … When you say you are grateful for the opportunities that you are given, don’t just speak the words. Act upon them. Recognize how fortunate you are and try to understand the struggle of others who may not be as lucky as you. Understand that there are people in this world who are struggling and fighting for their lives each and every single day. Gratitude is not just about the words we say, but about the action that follows.

So far this year, we have been hit with countless acts of violence and hatred across the globe, from the school shooting in Kenya and the police brutality here in our own country, to the bombings in France. This is the perfect opportunity for us thoughtfully count our blessings and to take steps towards changing the society we live in. No matter how insignificant you think your voice is to the world, you have the power and the ability to make change. We all are in a position to challenge the things we hear and to stand up for what we believe in.”

— Senior Deja Lewis-Nwalipenja


“We may take the holiday for granted, as just a time to gather for dinner — but think about the power of all of us pausing from our busy lives, in the midst of world tragedies and challenges, to come together to recognize our bounty and blessings,” Head of School Dr. Wendy Hill told staff and students at Tuesday’s assembly.

“We have much to be thankful for: for friends and family; for this wonderful school; for terrific students and dedicated teachers and staff; for freedoms and opportunities that others throughout the world do not share. Take the time to give thanks.

But let’s also do more than that this year. Let’s think about the word: Thanksgiving. It is important as a day of thanks, but also a day of giving. Not of material gifts, but the giving of ourselves: The giving of compassion; the giving of kindness and respect for others; the giving of support and our time; the giving of an open heart and an open mind; the giving of hope.

Thanksgiving. May you have a joyous day filled with thanks and with giving.”

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