Our traditional date of Thanksgiving wasn’t official until World War II.
If you read Albany Kid’s article about debunking Thanksgiving myths, you’ll know there were several other Thanksgiving celebrations in our country before the pilgrims celebrated at Plymouth. You also might have noticed that not one of them occurred on the last Thursday in November.
So how did that date become the one we all get together on? How did it become the day we modern Americans give thanks and partake? In a word: politics.
But before we get into politics, let’s go back to some earlier Thanksgiving celebrations.
On December 4th, 1619, in the Colony of Virginia, about 20 miles upstream from Jamestown, 38 settlers arrived with a charter for Berkeley Hundred, later known as Berkeley Plantation. This charter specifically stated that a “day of thanksgiving” should be observed every year on the anniversary of their arrival in the New World.
The Separatists of Plymouth Colony held their first Thanksgiving in 1621, but an even larger feast was held on July 30th of 1623. This is considered to be the very first civil recognition of Thanksgiving, at least in New England.
Throughout the colonies for the fifty years thanksgivings were irregular and occurred mostly after favorable events. These were most always both religious and civil events. In the later part of the 17th Century, Thanksgiving developed into an after-harvest event, but not on the same day in any settlement or colony.
The first nationwide Thanksgiving celebration was actually held to celebrate a military victory. In December of 1777 the young country celebrated the defeat of General Burgoyne at Saratoga. In fact, during this time the Continental Congress appointed one or more days of thanksgiving a year, strongly recommending that all states celebrate.
Once George Washington became president he made a decree, on October 3rd, 1789:
Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States… for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed, for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed… to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually, to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed, to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shown kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord.
Washington made the same decree again six years later. John Adams decreed a day of thanksgiving in 1798 and ’99. No presidential decrees were made again until 1814 when James Madison made a decree in response to a resolution of Congress at the end of the War of 1812, The following year, however, Madison declared the holiday twice.
None of these, save Washington’s first, were celebrated in Autumn.
The next year the states took it upon themselves to celebrate. New Hampshire’s Governor appointed Thursday the 14th of November while the Governor of Massachusetts liked Thursday, November 28th. New York Governors appointed a new Thanksgiving day every year. Some Southern states didn’t like the idea at all, claiming it was “a relic of Puritanic bigotry.” See how history gets confused? Even if the Pilgrims at Plymouth had started it all, they were Separatists; the Puritans settled closer to Boston.
Now we come to a lady named Sarah Josepha Hale. Ms Hale is famous for three things: first, she wrote Mary had a Little Lamb; second, she raised $30,000 to complete the Bunker Hill Monument in Boston; but third, she is the one individual that made Thanksgiving a National Holiday. It took Ms Hale 17 years, writing editorials and letters to Presidents Taylor, Filmore, Pierce, Buchanan, and finally Lincoln.
President Lincoln thought a National Holiday such as Thanksgiving would be just the ticket to help unify the country and every year since 1863 we have celebrated it annually.
In 1939 President Franklin D Roosevelt had a very different problem to deal with as President, and it is here that the politics come in. The country was in the Great Depression, and that year November had five Thursdays, as it occasionally does. FDR thought perhaps by moving Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday, the country’s merchants would have more time for the Christmas spending season. It may seem odd to us now, but at that time it was considered gauche to advertise Christmas sales and put up decorations before Thanksgiving.
Oh! the horror! Lincoln was a Republican and Roosevelt – this Roosevelt – a Democrat. Republicans called it an affront to Lincoln’s memory and refused to accept the change, and called this new date “Franksgiving”. Democrats were no better, calling the last Thursday the “Republican Thanksgiving”.
The American people were stuck in the middle. Sports long being a Thanksgiving tradition, many football teams had scheduled games for Thanksgiving that could not be changed. Parades and festivities as well were scheduled well in advance. Since all that Roosevelt did was declare the date, and that is far from legally binding, only 23 states went along with the President. There were 22 states that didn’t, and Texas decided to take off both days as government holidays.
For the next few years FDR continued to try and add an extra week to the Christmas season by declaring the third Thursday as Thanksgiving. Again, it didn’t really make a difference; some states agreed, some didn’t. So, Congress decided to get into the act. In October of 1941 both houses passed a joint resolution: The last Thursday of November, the date Lincoln chose, was to be the official date of Thanksgiving from 1942 onward. But two months later the Senate amended the resolution to make it the fourth Thursday of November. Tricky Senators. The fourth Thursday could be the last, or it could be the next to last. President Roosevelt, probably more worried about World War Two at this point and happy to have all of this over with, signed the bill and the actual date of Thanksgiving became Federal Law.
There were states that continued, for a few years after, to stubbornly celebrate Thanksgiving on the last Thursday, even if five Thursdays occurred in November. The very last state to stop was Texas, and that was in 1956, eleven years after the end of World War Two.
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Cie McCullough Buschle | Cie McCullough Buschle lives with her dog Einstein and a cat named Burton Guster. She is a lifelong traveler and enjoys researching history through holidays, toys, and everyday objects. Cie is a sculptor and co-owns The Creative Chameleon, a place where kids and adults can create, paint, celebrate, and just have a lot of fun. Sometimes you can find her time traveling back to the Middle Ages as part of the Society for Creative Anachronism.