A Modern History of Thanksgiving

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Abraham Lincoln

The history of Thanksgiving is not just about Pilgrims. Learn about the role Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt had in creating the modern Thanksgiving.

The history of Thanksgiving Day, as most American children know it, involves Pilgrims and Native Americans sharing a fall feast. However, most versions of Thanksgiving history end there. This is unfortunate as the modern history of Thanksgiving is just as important in illustrating American values.

A Single Mother, A Civil War and the History of Thanksgiving Day

President Abraham Lincoln was the first to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday to be celebrated every year. However it was Sarah Josepha Hale, a single mother and editor of a popular woman’s magazine, who campaigned heartily for this national holiday as Fort Collin’s Mayor Ray Martinez explains in his 2001 “Thanksgiving Soapbox” on his City’s website. Ms. Hale believed Thanksgiving to be a patriotic holiday that would help unify the nation. She began her campaign in 1846 sending letters to the President, state governors, and other influential people.

On October 3rd, 1863 President Lincoln issued his Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, establishing the holiday as a national annual event. America in the 1860’s faced the divisive forces of racism, sexism, and a raging Civil War. It was hoped the holiday would help heal a few of the Nation’s wounds. The last Thursday of November was chosen because on November 26 1789 George Washington had declared a National Thanksgiving Day to honor the new United States Constitution.

How Franklin D. Roosevelt Affected the History of Thanksgiving

After Lincoln, most presidents were happy to continue the tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving Day on the last Thursday of November. In 1939 however President Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving up a week and briefly caused the nation to have two Thanksgiving Days.

In 1939 Thanksgiving was due to fall on the last day of the month, November 30th. Research had shown that most consumers did not begin their holiday shopping until after Thanksgiving and many businesses were worried about losing revenue from a shorter shopping season. President Roosevelt was presiding over an America in the midst of The Great Depression, so in a move to help the economy he moved Thanksgiving Day up a week.

Thousands of letters poured into the White House protesting the date change and many states refused to acknowledge it. Calendar manufacturers and universities argued the date change would wreck their business routines. Many felt it was wrong to change a tradition for the sake of business. Some states followed the new date while others did not- creating two Thanksgiving Days in the nation. Public outrage finally convinced Congress to pass a law on December 26, 1941 officially making the fourth Thursday of November Thanksgiving.