Weekly Columns

Once again, the holiday season has quietly and rapidly descended upon us. Arkansans are getting into the holiday spirit and preparing to share meals and extended time with their loved ones. We will also be looking for ways to give back and pay it forward.

Thanksgiving’s history within our nation is rich, if not complex. While claims of communal meals centered around fellowship and thanks date back to the 1500s, the tradition that epitomizes the concept of a traditional Thanksgiving meal occurred in 1621 in New England.

That year, pilgrim settlers in Plymouth Colony celebrated their first successful harvest alongside the Native Americans who assisted them in learning how to cultivate the land in the New World. Depictions of Pilgrims and Native Americans gathered together to share in an abundance of food and gratitude are inescapable. Ever since, the idea of assembling for the specific purpose of showing gratefulness while breaking bread has been a hallmark of American life in some shape or form.

The first president of the United States, George Washington took the recommendation of Congress to call for a national day of Thanksgiving in 1789. He spoke of “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God.” Later, even amid the turmoil of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln would proclaim a national day of Thanksgiving, declaring it “fit and proper” to be “solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged” that our country had been the beneficiary of gracious gifts from on high.

More recently, President Ronald Reagan described Thanksgiving as “a day Americans extend a helping hand to the less fortunate” and extolled the spirit of voluntary giving that was “ingrained in America,” while President George W. Bush once surprised American troops serving in Iraq on the holiday in 2003 to eat with them and extend his encouragement and gratitude on behalf of the American people for their courage and sacrifice.

Each of these moments, and countless others, shows how Americans innately possess a desire to pause and give thanks for the many blessings and opportunities afforded to us. And while time spent with loved ones enjoying delicious food and treasured fellowship are a staple of this holiday, it has also come to serve as a reminder of the privilege we have to give back.

Whether it’s serving food to the hungry, collecting and distributing toys or clothing to those in need or finding other ways to aid our communities, Thanksgiving and the holiday season has come to represent not just thankfulness, but also service.

As my former football coach Frank Broyles constantly reminded my teammates and me, “There are two types of people: givers and takers. Be a giver.” We certainly do our share of taking during the holiday season, but I think Coach Broyles would be proud of how so many citizens also take the opportunity to make a positive contribution to the benefit of friends and strangers alike.

One way we’re doing that in Washington is by hosting a food drive to benefit a local food bank. The bipartisan Senate Hunger Caucus, which I co-chair, is leading this nonpartisan initiative to help the hungry. And I’m encouraging Arkansans to find similar ways to serve their neighbors and give back close to home during this season and year-round.

Thanksgiving is a wonderful time of year. It helps us remember what we’ve been blessed to receive, often times undeservingly. This day of gratitude and thanks also makes us pause and reflect on what we have and how we can use our time and resources to help others. I’m eager to see how Arkansans answer that call this holiday season, and I wish all in the Natural State a happy Thanksgiving.