How Thanksgiving Became a National Holiday

Although the 1621 Pilgrim celebration at Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts is usually regarded as the first Thanksgiving, other states disagree. Maine claims to have the held the earliest Thanksgiving fourteen years before the Plymouth holiday. The celebration had much in common with Plymouth’s, since English settlers shared a large meal with local Native Americans near the Kennebec River. Virginia held a religious service in 1619 after colonists landed safely at a place called Berkeley Hundred, located up the river from Jamestown. Neither the Maine nor the Virginia settlements survived, which is likely why the Plymouth Colony gets credit for the first Thanksgiving.

The colonists at Plymouth didn’t plan on making Thanksgiving an annual holiday, however. Instead, they held days of thanksgiving whenever they felt especially grateful to God. For example, in 1623, Plymouth’s crops withered. When rain fell, the colonists held a day of thanksgiving prayer. Basically, in bad times the Pilgrims fasted, and in good times they gave thanks.

Even in the eighteenth century, governors of various states proclaimed days of Thanksgiving irregularly. Some skipped the custom altogether. During the Revolutionary War, leaders in Congress sometimes proclaimed a day of thanksgiving following a military victory. As president, George Washington named November 26, 1789 as a day to give thanks for the new U.S. Constitution. For the most part, however, states chose when or if they wanted to hold a thanksgiving celebration.

Sarah Hale portrait

Sarah Hale Portrait by James Reid Lambdin

By the nineteenth century, Sarah Hale led a campaign for an annual Thanksgiving Day. Hale was the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, and she used her public position to write editorials and send letters to government officials. Gradually, governors of various states proclaimed annual days of thanksgiving. Even President Abraham Lincoln declared a day of thanksgiving after the Battle of Gettysburg.

Yet Sarah Hale still remained dissatisfied. She wanted Thanksgiving to be a national holiday, not one celebrated for military victories by the government or selected by individual states. She found a sympathetic listener in President Lincoln. He proclaimed a nationwide Thanksgiving Day for the last Thursday of November 1863. Lincoln’s proclamation stated, “I do, therefore, invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States…to set apart and observe the last Thursday in November next as a day of Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.” The new holiday offered hope for the future of a nation torn apart by civil war. After the war, the former Confederate states joined in the national celebration.

Only one president tried to change the date of Thanksgiving. In an effort to help the struggling economy, President Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to the third Thursday in November of 1939 so consumers had more shopping days before Christmas. The public disagreed so strongly with the change that Congress adopted a resolution firmly establishing Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November.

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