How Thanksgiving Got Its Day

Samuel Sullivan

Thanksgiving Day in America was not always predictable. It was one of the four original American holidays, but it did not have a finalized date until 1942.

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Thanksgiving 1918 by Underwood & Underwood. (War Dept.)Wikimedia Commons

First President of the United States George Washington gave the Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789 saying:

“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 signal favors of Almighty God.”

There are differing views about who should take credit for the popular American holiday Thanksgiving Day. Some credit the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians. Others credit Presidents George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Still, others have never thought twice about its origins but love to gather with family and friends, give thanks, and eat as much turkey as they can stomach.

Today, Americans take for granted that Thanksgiving Day is the fourth Thursday of November, but it was not always that way. Only since 1942 has the date of Thanksgiving Day been predictable for Americans.

The myth of the first thanksgiving

A large harvest feast that the lore of Thanksgiving Day celebrates did take place nearly 400 years ago in the northeast of the modern-day United States. According to Maya Salam of the New York Times, that three-day feast and celebration in 1621, which included Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians, would not have been considered thanksgiving by anyone involved. In fact, it was not until the 1830s that the event was called the first Thanksgiving.

The pilgrims who arrived in the United States on the Mayflower ship in 1620 did have a tradition called thanksgiving, but it was very different from what we celebrate today. According to Eve LaPlante of the Boston Globe, to Pilgrims, thanksgiving was commonly a communal day of fasting, meditation, and supplication to God. The pilgrims could prescribe a thanksgiving multiple times per year.

George Washington

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be” — George Washington from his Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789.

According to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, after Congress passed a resolution in 1789, President George Washington agreed. It decided Thursday, November 26th, as the first national thanksgiving to honor the new United States Constitution's creation.

Six years later, in February 1795, President Washington proclaimed a second national thanksgiving after the Whiskey Rebellion defeat.

Abraham Lincoln

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. — An excerpt from Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1863.

According to Abraham Lincoln Online, before President Lincoln’s proclamation in 1863, each state scheduled its own Thanksgiving holiday at different times. This was mainly in New England and other northern states. President Lincoln had issued other Thanksgiving orders earlier in his presidency. Still, the Proclamation in 1863 is seen as the start of the national Thanksgiving tradition as the last Thursday in November.

Becoming a federal holiday

According to Jacob R. Straus of the Congressional Research Service, the first four federal holidays were established in 1870. Thanksgiving Day, Independence Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day were all established.

Independence Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day all had recognized yearly recurring dates. Thanksgiving Day did not, it was federally official, but it was to be celebrated yearly on:

“Any day appointed or recommended by the President of the United States as a day of public fasting or thanksgiving [were] to be holidays within the District [of Columbia].”¹

The 1870 holidays only applied to workers in Washington, D.C. It was not until 1885 that all per diem workers in the U.S. were granted federal holidays.²

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

According to Straus, between 1869 and 1939, the tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November or the first Thursday in November had held except for two years. Each year the date was announced via presidential proclamation.

In 1939, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt decided to move up Thanksgiving Day to the third Thursday of November. He reasoned that this would help retail businesses by increasing the duration of the Christmas shopping season.

The Democratic Roosevelt faced backlash for his move from his political rivals. According to Andrew Prokop of Vox Media, Republicans dubbed the new Thanksgiving date “Franksgiving.” Only 23 of 48 states ended up moving Thanksgiving Day to Roosevelt’s date.

Roosevelt stuck to his guns through 1941, but many states still did not get on board with his earlier Thanksgiving date. Roosevelt relented when the Commerce Department found the extra week had not meaningfully expanded retail sales.

According to Straus, Roosevelt signed a joint resolution passed by Congress in December 1941 that finally made Thanksgiving Day the fourth Thursday in November. The confusion of Thanksgiving Day was finally over.

Takeaways

Thanksgiving Day is one of my favorite holidays, but its forgotten history, including the seemingly arbitrary date, baffled me for years. But now, I can pull up my chair to the table every the fourth Thursday of November and, between bites of gravy covered turkey, mashed potatoes, and stuffing, regale my family and friends with the stories that made Thanksgiving Day a holiday Americans everywhere could predict and plan for from year to year.

In the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic, Thanksgiving in 2020 was unlike any other. But the spirit of Thanksgiving continued to revolve around family, friends, health, and happiness. I look forward to Thanksgiving this year and hope that everyone is able to celebrate with family.

Footnotes

¹ “An Act making the first Day of January, the twenty-fifth Day of December, the fourth Day of July, and Thanksgiving Day, Holidays within the District of Columbia,” 16 Stat. 168 (28 June 1870).

² “Joint resolution (№5) providing for the payment of laborers in Government employ for certain holidays,” 23 Stat. 516 (6 Jan 1885).

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