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.

Fala: Franklin Roosevelt’s Presidential Pup

President Franklin Roosevelt owned a variety of dogs throughout his life, but when he was elected president he needed one that wouldn’t misbehave. In 1940, FDR’s cousin gave him a Scottish Terrier for Christmas. FDR named the dog Fala and he became instantly popular with everyone in the White House. A few weeks after Fala arrived, he got sick to his stomach. The White House staff had become so fond of him that everyone gave the little dog too much food. After that, FDR ordered that only he would feed Fala and the dog got better. In order to receive his food, Fala first had to do tricks like shaking hands and begging, but he didn’t seem to mind as long as his master was there.

Fala was the president’s nearly constant companion. He met with important world leaders and was present when FDR signed the Atlantic Charter, which outlined the aims England and the U.S. had for World War II. He attended press conferences and was trained to shake hands so he could welcome important people to the White House. In the evening he helped FDR entertain guests, or sometimes he napped. The dog even slept in the president’s bedroom at night.

Fala’s popularity was not limited to FDR and the White House staff, however. Photographers loved taking pictures of the Scottie. Fan mail regularly arrived for him from people all over the country. He received more letters and certainly more compliments than most presidents. A book about Fala was written for his adoring fans. In it, Fala expressed his disappointment that the Secret Service would not allow him to attend his master’s third inauguration. Though both were sad when FDR passed away, Fala quickly became First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s companion.


Franklin Roosevelt’s Early Experiences with the Poor

From an early age, Franklin Roosevelt was taught to help others. As a teenager, his mother encouraged him to join the Missionary Society at his boarding school. The society sponsored a summer camp for poor city children. Franklin taught campers to swim, canoe, and sail. He also heard prominent reformers of the time period speak at his school. They included Jacob Riis, who championed the cause of the poor, and Booker T. Washington who sought to help African-Americans improve their social status. Moved by the words of these men and others, Franklin wanted to contribute to their causes. Though he did not have money of his own, he wrote home for permission to donate to these reformers.

Even when he left for Harvard, Franklin still found time to serve the Missionary Society at his former school. Since he was older, he could teach classes to the children and oversee games at the St. Andrew’s Boys Club in Boston. At Harvard, he joined the Social Service Society. He was genuine in his desire to help the poor but he did not have much contact with them outside of classroom or camp settings. After meeting his future wife Eleanor, however, he would learn more about the daily life of the poor.

Eleanor taught dancing at a school for immigrant girls. Franklin came to pick her up after work and they helped one of Eleanor’s students return home at night. When he came out of the girl’s apartment, Franklin was appalled by the condition in which the girl lived. The hallway was greasy and unlit and the plumbing was bad. He said to Eleanor, “My God, I didn’t know anyone lived like that.” Eleanor thought Franklin’s visits to her school helped shape his career. She often asked him to pick her up at the school because “I wanted him to see how people lived…And it worked. He saw how people lived, and he never forgot.”

His early experiences with the poor made Franklin determined to help people who lost their jobs during the Great Depression. As president, he helped the unemployed find work by creating a variety of government programs. For example, the Works Progress Administration put people to work building roads, bridges, airports, schools, and other buildings. Although the programs could not employ everyone who needed a job, they had a positive impact on millions of jobless Americans.