Thanksgiving, or, the tradition of stuffing your face with seasonal pies, side dishes, and turkey, is one of the oldest traditions there is. Celebrations of fall harvest transcend cultures and millennia, dating as far back as the Ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians! Although the practice of celebrating a bountiful harvest has been a custom as old as the harvest season itself, it hasn’t always been a national holiday.
In 1789, the Continental Congress encouraged President George Washington to establish a day of thanksgiving in the United States. Washington proclaimed that Thursday, November 26, 1789 (exactly 226 years ago today!) was a “Day of Publick Thanksgivin” (from The U.S. National Archives – I know how to spell, I swear). Following Washington’s lead, Adams and Monroe both proclaimed a national Thanksgiving, but the chosen days, and even months, varied each year. With no consistency, the observance fell out of practice by 1815 but individual states continued the custom.
Slowly, Thanksgiving celebrations made a comeback throughout the nation and by the 1850s, nearly every state and territory celebrated a day to give thanks. At that point, you’d think Congress would have made it a national holiday… That’s what many other people of the time thought too, especially Sarah Josepha Hale.
Hale was the esteemed editor of the prevalent women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book. She had tried for decades to establish Thanksgiving as a nation celebration, but to no avail. After 36 years of petitioning she finally persuaded President Abraham Lincoln to make it an annual holiday in 1863 with the angle that a nationally recognized day of Thanksgiving would unite a country torn by civil war. Talk about dedication to a cause! That year there were two Thanksgivings. One was to celebrate the Victory at Gettysburg, observed on August 6th, and the second celebration was on the last Thursday in November to celebrate the end of the harvest season. I can only imagine that in the midst of the Civil War, a nationally recognized day to give thanks was much appreciated. For the next few decades, Thanksgiving was celebrated once a year on the last Thursday in November.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt triggered controversy in 1939 when he moved Thanksgiving up a week to the third Thursday of the month in an attempt to lengthen the Christmas shopping season and boost the economy. Many people were upset that Thanksgiving became a politicized event and the change was strongly opposed. (This sounds a lot like Black Friday, anyone else agree?) After going back and fourth for two years on FDR’s decision, Congress decided that Thanksgiving would be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November, reinstating the original holiday custom.
So this Thanksgiving, when you dive face first into a mountain of food and look at the food baby you’ve created in utter self-loathing, don’t feel bad about it! It’s a tradition that has been and will continue to be a day of feasting guilt-free in the company of those you love, being thankful for all that you have. Happy Thanksgiving!
“History of Thanksgiving.” http://www.history.com/topics/thanksgiving/history-of-thanksgiving.
The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. “Congress Establishes Thanksgiving.” https://www.archives.gov/legislative/features/thanksgiving/.
Plimoth Plantation. “Thanksgiving History.” http://www.plimoth.org/learn/multimedia-reference-library/read-articles-and-writings/thanksgiving-history.