Thanksgiving Day is traditionally a day to give thanks for a bountiful harvest. While its pilgrim-origins may have been religious, Thanksgiving has increasingly come to be identified as a secular holiday. Nowadays it often is casually referred to as “Turkey Day”. Even so, Thanksgiving continues to be the day that many Americans set aside for family gatherings and celebration through culinary traditions. It’s a day of pilgrims and forefathers, Native Americans, pumpkin pie, and of course, turkey. But although every school child today knows that the celebration occurs on the “fourth Thursday in November,” Thanksgiving’s current calendar location came only after a long and fitful journey.
Tradition has it that the first Thanksgiving celebration held in America occurred in 1619. According to Virginia.org, on December fourth of that year, thirty-eight English settlers arrived at the Berkeley Plantation in Virginia. Their charter stated that they would set aside that day every year and observe it as a day of Thanksgiving.
As the story goes, Captain John Woodlief led the newly-arrived English colonists to a grassy slope along the James River and instructed them to drop to their knees and pray in thanks for a safe arrival to the New World. The 38 men from Berkeley Parish in England vowed:
“Wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrivall at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually keept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.”
The vow can be read carved on a brick gazebo marking the location believed to be where Woodlief knelt beside the James River. Due to the hardships of those days, the celebration turned out to be a fairly short-lived occurrence.
The next recorded Thanksgiving celebration, and more in keeping with today’s modern celebration, occurred in 1621 at the site of Plymouth Plantation, in Massachusetts. There, the Wampanoag Native American tribe, helped the Massachusetts Pilgrims cultivate the land and fish, saving them from starvation. That harvest celebration occurred early in the history of what would become one of the original Thirteen Colonies to later form the United States. The celebration was modeled after harvest festivals that were commonplace in Europe at the time.
According to historian Jeremy Bangs, director of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum, the Pilgrims may have been influenced by watching the annual services of thanksgiving for the relief of the siege of Leiden in 1574, while they were staying in Leiden.
The 1621 Thanksgiving, which lasted three days, was said to have been celebrated with the presence of nearly one hundred Native Americans. Governor William Bradford had invited the natives to show appreciation for their assistance in helping the young colony survive the harsh weather conditions.
Various Thanksgiving celebrations occurred in following years and various attempts were made to formalize the date of the celebration.
In 1668 the Plymouth General Court declared Thanksgiving to be November 25th but the proclamation only lasted within the colony for five years.
The first national celebration of Thanksgiving occurred in 1777 as a one-time event that doubled as a way to celebrate the American defeat of the British at Saratoga.
In 1789 George Washington made a Presidential proclamation declaring Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Washington’s proclamation set Thanksgiving as November 26 of that year. But then the nation’s second president, John Adams, immediately attempted to move the Thanksgiving celebration from Thursday to Wednesday.
Adams quickly abandoned the idea due to strong public resistance.
By the time that Thomas Jefferson took office American sentiment had generally shifted away from commemorating the hard times of just a few pilgrims. With the change in public opinion Thanksgiving languished as a formal American holiday for the next sixty years.
That is, until Sarah Josepha Hale came along.
Hale, a 74-year-old magazine editor, was relentless in her belief that the country should establish a day for giving thanks â€˜unto him from who all blessings flow’. Hale’s poignant editorials in many of the nation’s most popular magazines finally gained the attention of President Abraham Lincoln.
In a September 28, 1863 letter Hale implorded Lincoln “You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritive fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.”
Hale’s persistence worked. On October 3, 1863, Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November as a national day of Thanksgiving.
But should you believe that anything can have real permanence when it comes to American politics, well then think again.
By the 1930’s, it seems, President Franklin Roosevelt still had not fully appreciated the experiences of President Adams and Lincoln when it came to tinkering with the national calendar. Roosevelt attempted to move the date of Thanksgiving forward by a week.
To extend the Christmas shopping season of course!
Roosevelt’s attempt generated immense public outrage and the idea was quietly abandoned. Later in his administration, in 1941, Congress legally declared the fourth Thursday in November to thereafter be recognized as Thanksgiving.
A few words on Thanksgiving:
By the United States in Congress Assembled, 1782
It being the indispensable duty of all Nations, not only to offer up their supplications to ALMIGHTY GOD, the giver of all good, for his gracious assistance in a time of distress, but also in a solemn and public manner to give him praise for his goodness in general, and especially for great and signal interpositions of his providence in their behalf.
President, General George Washington
By the President of the United States of America, a Proclamation. Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me “to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.
President Abraham Lincoln, October 3, 1863
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.