November 19, 2018
Thanksgiving Day – An American History
The American Thanksgiving holiday is steeped in family traditions, gratitude, and even a little preparation for holiday shopping. But the day that we celebrate Thanksgiving is also steeped in American history. The ships that brought the Pilgrims also brought their traditions, including days of fasting and giving thanks. The English settlers who arrived in Charles City County, Virginia in 1619, for example, were required by their charter to celebrate the day of their arrival annually as a day of thanksgiving to God. Over the next several decades, autumn thanksgiving festivals followed the harvest, which lasted up to three days and were held anytime between mid-September and the end of November. Thanksgiving proclamations were made mostly by church leaders and later by state leaders until the American Revolution. During that time, both royal governors and revolutionary leaders (including the Continental Congress) made their own thanksgiving decrees favorable to their causes. The first nationwide thanksgiving was celebrated on November 26, 1789 as proclaimed by President George Washington.
Despite the first official observance, Thanksgiving was celebrated on various dates across the states until the beginning of the 19th century, but the last Thursday in November had become customary. It wasn’t until 1863, during the Civil War, that President Abraham Lincoln called for the thanksgiving in all states to be observed on that final Thursday. And similar to the political climate during the Revolution, Lincoln called for the success of the Union and the military in the war. The nationwide Thanksgiving was finally realized after Reconstruction in the 1870s.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt had no intention of changing Thanksgiving, but in 1933 retailers began lobbying for a change. That year November had five Thursdays and they argued moving the holiday up a week would be good for both business and jobs for the Christmas season. Roosevelt didn’t agree and declined the request. However, another five-Thursday November occurred in 1939 and this time Roosevelt agreed, signing a presidential proclamation moving Thanksgiving to the next to last Thursday on October 31, 1939. Many Americans disapproved of the move and the reasons why, including some governors who kept the old date. To mandate the new national Thanksgiving date, Roosevelt signed a joint resolution of Congress on December 26, 1941.
Did you know …
Sarah Josepha Hale, an influential magazine editor and author, petitioned for a national Thanksgiving holiday for nearly 40 years in the 19th century? She was also the author of the classic nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”