Thanksgiving History – A Brief Journey Through Time

Posted on Thursday, November 24, 2022
by AMAC, D.J. Wilson

Thanksgiving is a wonderful day to be thankful for our abundant blessings. In America, the holiday is steeped in rich history, time-honored legend, and vivid symbolism, modeled on a 1621 harvest feast shared by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people. Thanksgiving wasn’t always set in stone, and, in fact, was proclaimed by some Presidents before growing into the fixed holiday we all know and love today. Thankfully, as a nation, we join in celebration with giant parades, aromatic scents of roasting turkeys, and families and friends gathered under one roof to share in joy.

George Washington was the first president to issue a proclamation for Thanksgiving in 1789, designating Thursday, November 26 “for the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving.” However, not all Presidents felt the same way. Thomas Jefferson refused to endorse the tradition because he believed it meant supporting state-sponsored religion. Rather, he considered the declaration of Thanksgiving the responsibility of the states and not the federal government. However, contrary to popular misconception, Jefferson did not personally oppose Thanksgiving. Speed up to 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day. Lincoln made a proclamation to urge the nation to heal its wounds and restore “peace, harmony, tranquility and union.” This set precedent for our modern-day Thanksgivings. In 1870, Congress passed legislation making Thanksgiving Day, along with Christmas, New Year’s, and Independence Day a national holiday. Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879), best known as author of the nursery rhyme, “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” also pushed to celebrate the day, writing letters to politicians for over 40 years to advocate for the holiday. Hale’s letter to Lincoln is cited as a factor in Lincoln’s decision to create “A National Day of Thanksgiving and Praise.” It would be commemorated each year on the last Thursday of November.

In 1939, the last Thursday in November happened to fall on the last day of the month. Concern grew over the effects of the short Christmas shopping season on America’s economic recovery. This prompted Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue a Presidential Proclamation to move Thanksgiving to the second to last Thursday of November to provide Depression-affected businesses more retail time. Some states followed suit and others did not. So, for two years, two different days were celebrated as Thanksgiving. However, Thanksgiving’s official date would finally be set as the fourth Thursday in November in 1941.

Today’s holiday is steeped in some time-honored tradition, however, not all can agree on its origin. Some historians argue that Thanksgiving is rooted in the Spanish community, with the earliest service traced to St. Augustine, Florida, in 1585. In 1963, President Kennedy acknowledged origination claims of two New England rivals, stating, “Over three centuries ago, our forefathers in Virginia and Massachusetts, far from home in a lonely wilderness, set aside a time of thanksgiving. On the appointed day, they gave reverent thanks for their safety, for the health of their children, for the fertility of their fields, for the love which bound them together, and for the faith which united them with their God.”

The annual holiday of Thanksgiving is a beloved holiday celebrated in the U.S., Canada, and some other places. The purpose of the holiday is to express thanks for the blessings of the harvest and beyond. Over the years new traditions evolved. Philadelphia’s oldest Thanksgiving Day Parade, first taking place in 1920, set the mood for modern day parades occurring all over America. Regardless of where you live, the spirit of Thanksgiving remains ever present and strong, reminding us to be grateful for the gifts we have; not only for the harvest, but for God, our nation, our family, friends, and neighbors we hold so dear.