Origins of the Thanksgiving Holiday in America


Thanksgiving of today is celebrated much like the colonists of Plymouth Colony celebrated it in 1621. Theirs was a three day celebration of feasting to mark the end of a successful growing season. The day has had other meanings. In the 18th century, Thanksgiving marked military victories, bountiful harvests or changes in the government. Some of the original Thanksgivings were days of prayer and fasting.

The First Thanksgiving Proclamation

The first recorded Thanksgiving Proclamation was made by the Governing Council of Charlestown, Massachusetts on June 20, 1676. This proclamation made June 29, 1676 a day for thanksgiving. Aside from the 1676 holiday, Thanksgiving was not a set holiday in colonial America. Different colonies would have many days for giving thanks during the year.

Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation

In 1777, the nation had its first national Thanksgiving observance after the defeat of British General Burgoyne at Saratoga. The next one would not come until after the American Revolution. On October 3, 1789, President George Washington proclaimed Thursday, November 26, 1789 to be “A Day of Public Thanksgiving and Prayer.” This proclamation, entitled , in a document entitled General Thanksgiving, marked the first time the new country had an officially designated day of thanksgiving.

Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation

Having a national holiday set aside for Thanksgiving was not always popular. Many felt there was no need for a set day of thanksgiving. Others felt that the suffering of a few pilgrims called for any kind of national recognition. Even Thomas Jefferson opposed the idea of a Thanksgiving holiday.

Sarah Josepha Hale, a magazine editor, would be the person to change all of that. She made the need for a Thanksgiving holiday into a forty year crusade. She wrote editorials as well as letters to governors and presidents. In 1863, her pleadings succeeded when Abraham Lincoln, in the middle of the War Between the States, would make a Thanksgiving Proclamation that designated the last Tuesday of November to be a national day of thanksgiving.

Every president after Lincoln proclaimed the Thanksgiving holiday. The date changed a few times over the years, until a proclamation by President Franklin D. Roosevelt made it the fourth Thursday of November. Congress would then sanction the day as a legal holiday in 1941.