Thanksgiving Day

The first Thanksgiving was actually a feast to celebrate the end of the harvest season. The harvest festival lasted four days. The Plymouth Colony did not repeat its harvest celebration in coming years. The idea of a national Thanksgiving began to gain interest in the 18th & 19th centuries in America.

It took a while to get the Plymouth settlement ready for the women and children to leave the ship Mayflower and stay permanently on the land. The ship returned to England on April 5, 1621. The surviving members at Plymouth by autumn of 1621 numbered about 53 (out of 132 original members, including the ship’s crew). By 1630, about 300 men, women, and children populated this English Plymouth Colony.

During the early 1700s, it was common practice for individual colonies to observe days of thanksgiving throughout each year. Later in the 18th century (1700s) each of the states periodically would designate a day of thanksgiving in honor of a military victory, an adoption of a state constitution or an exceptionally bountiful crop.

During the American Revolutionary War (1776-1783), the Continental Congress declared a national Thanksgiving to boost morale. On October 3, 1789, President George Washington issued his Thanksgiving proclamation, designating for “the People of the United States a day of public thanks-giving” to be held on “Thursday the 26th day of November,” 1789, marking the first national celebration of a holiday that has become commonplace in today’s households. That tradition continued with the following early presidents until Thomas Jefferson became US President in 1801 and served until 1809. Jefferson believed he could not endorse such a holiday without running afoul of the First Amendment—and furthermore, he considered days of thanksgiving the responsibility of the states, not the federal government. He felt it was more important to maintain a strict separation of church and state. It would be James Madison who would again make a federal Thanksgiving proclamation by November 1814.

Abraham Lincoln on October 3, 1863 was the first to officially declare Thanksgiving a national holiday after many years of campaigning by the author of the nursery rhyme, “Mary had a Little Lamb”, Sarah J. Hale. Lincoln’s written statement included: “I 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 Prayer.”

This tradition continued until 1939, when US President Franklin D. Roosevelt departed from tradition by declaring November 23, the next to last Thursday that year, as Thanksgiving Day. Considerable controversy surrounded this deviation, and some Americans refused to honor Roosevelt’s declaration. For the next two years, Roosevelt repeated the unpopular proclamation, but on November 26, 1941, he admitted his mistake and signed a bill into law officially making the fourth Thursday in November the national holiday of Thanksgiving Day.

Photo: President Lincoln and Sarah J. Hale

Related Blogs:

Planning the Family Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving – Family History Day

Examples of Thanksgiving Meals Years Ago

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