In pre-pandemic times, November in elementary schools meant having children draw hand-print turkeys, cornucopias, and make Pilgrim hats as they learned about the origins of Thanksgiving. How in 1621, the Pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts, grateful for surviving a harsh winter, gathered with the local Native Americans to give thanks. Unless you course, you grew up in Virginia. If so, you learned that the first Thanksgiving really happened at Berkeley Plantation in 1619.
It turns out both claims are more or less correct. On December 4, 1619 the ship “Margaret” with 35 settlers aboard dropped anchor at Berkeley Plantation. The first thing the settlers did upon disembarking was to give a prayer of thanks for a successful voyage and to vow that the day would be observed annually and in perpetuity as a day of thanksgiving. This tradition only lasted two years, the colony at Berkeley disbanded then due to the hostility of the Native American tribes in the area.
The Plymouth/Pilgrim celebration was much more aligned with what we now think of as Thanksgiving. It was a three day feast featuring games and military exhibitions. It most likely didn’t happen in November nor did it really have anything to do with giving thanks, generally. Late September to mid-October are typically the times associated with the harvest festival in England and that is what this celebration was. Harvest festivals were, and still are, a tradition in England; it was not surprising that the Pilgrims would bring this tradition to the new world. And those Indian guests? They didn’t arrive specifically to join the feasting. Native historians point out that the Wampanoag tribe considered the land the Pilgrims colonized as being under their control. It is surmised the leader of the tribe, Ousemequin, and some of his tribe members were in the area already to plant corn. Their invitation to join the settlers for three days of feasting could be seen as a diplomatic gesture.
While the tradition of setting aside a day to give thanks continued in America, it wasn’t done as a general expression of gratitude. Local communities still had harvest festivals. National days of thanksgiving were usually declared in response to military victories. George Washington, at the request of Congress, declared a day of Thanksgiving to be held on Thursday, November 26, 1789, that was specifically meant to be a show of gratitude for the good fortune of the country. Later presidents, however, didn’t follow suit. Only John Adams and James Madison issued what could be termed Thanksgiving proclamations. Adams’ two proclamations were not labelled as “Thanksgiving” proclamations. He proposed the nation spend a day devoted to fasting and prayer so as to reflect on the blessings of a free government. The dates he chose were May 9, 1798 and April 25, 1799. Madison’s proclamations were both explicitly ones of general Thanksgiving. But he also choose dates not in November. His first proclamation called for Thanksgiving to be celebrated on January 12, 1815. His second Thanksgiving proclamation called for an annual observance on the second Thursday of April. His successors never followed up on this idea.
While several states, mainly in the north, celebrated Thanksgiving, the push for a national day of thanks began in 1850 at the behest of Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of the Godey’s Lady’s Book. Godey’s Lady’s Book was the most widely circulating magazine in American at the time and Sarah Hale, was, in today’s language, a thought leader. Using her magazine as a national platform, she petitioned first James Buchanan and then Abraham Lincoln to proclaim a national day of thanks. In 1863 Lincoln issued a Proclamation of Thanksgiving establishing the last Thursday of November as a day of thanks and prayer. Unlike Madison’s successors, Lincoln’s successors. Andrew Johnson and Ulysses G. Grant kept up the tradition of an annual day of thanks.
Thanksgiving was formalized as a national holiday when, on June 28th, Ulysses S. Grant signed the Holidays Act of 1870. While this act made Thanksgiving a national holiday, it left the actual date to the discretion of the president. Presidents were content to follow the lead of Lincoln and declare Thanksgiving to be the last Thursday in November. Until 1939 when Thanksgiving would fall on November 30th, leaving a mere 24 shopping days until Christmas. Quaint as it may seem to us, at that time stores did not display Christmas decorations nor have Christmas sales until after Thanksgiving. Retailers, alarmed by studies that showed that most Americans did not begin their Christmas shopping until after Thanksgiving, prevailed upon President Roosevelt to change the date. On October 31st, Roosevelt issued Presidential Proclamation 2373 moving Thanksgiving back a week, to November 23d. The short notice took everyone by surprise and the move was terribly unpopular; 28 states refused to move the date. Roosevelt kept Thanksgiving at the earlier date for the next two years. In 1941 he relented and on December 26, 1941 he signed a joint resolution establishing Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November.