Although we associate Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims, they were not the originators of the tradition, nor has the celebration been continuous since Colonial times. Its curious history has roots stretching across time and the Atlantic Ocean, but it would only become the holiday we know it – taking place on the fourth Thursday of November – by proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln. Even this date would be subject to change as recently as the 1930s.
The holiday evolved from many ancient traditions. The Jewish people of the Old Testament held elaborate rituals of sacrifice and offerings to God. Both the Greeks and Romans were known to express thanks through feasts to their gods for a good harvest season. During medieval times, European countries abounded in festivals of thanksgiving for the bounty of harvests.
New World, new tradition
Most of the New World settlers came from Europe, so they were familiar with thanksgiving traditions. The Pilgrims brought with them the holiday as we know it to Massachusetts.
Through the friendship of an Indian named Squanto, the Pilgrims learned how to plant corn and squash, and where to hunt and fish – skills that proved successful in their harvest of 1621. In gratitude for these blessings, a three-day feast was held Dec. 13, 1621. Venison, duck, goose, seafood, corn, greens, berries and nuts were abundant at the celebration.
The next year’s harvest, however, proved scarce. It wasn’t until 1623 that conditions were better and another thanksgiving was held, this time on July 30.
These two celebrations were merely local affairs, but they were the forerunners of other sporadic celebrations in the New England states. Within 50 years, Massachusetts alone had as many as 22 public thanksgiving days appointed in the fall.
Thanksgivings were proclaimed by civil authorities and proposed to congregations for a variety of occasions, such as the gathering of the harvest, replenishment of provisions from Europe, and the safe return of soldiers from battles with the Indians. Even so, these days of giving thanks had still not become annual events.
During the American Revolution, Congress annually appointed national days of thanksgiving for victories in war. In 1778, Gen. George Washington directed his soldiers at Valley Forge, Pa., to offer prayers of thanks for treaties made with France. A banquet followed. As president, Washington issued a nationwide Thanksgiving Day proclamation in 1789. He set it to take place Thursday, Nov. 26, of that year.
Six years later – in 1795 – Washington called for another Thanksgiving Day. Celebrations were erratic, however, because of the various harvest seasons among states. Some states even considered Thanksgiving to be a European custom – and wanted nothing to do with it. Succeeding presidents were in disagreement on the time of the year for the holiday – or why it was observed.
President John Adams’ idea of thanksgiving didn’t have anything to do with the harvest season; in 1799, he suggested a celebration in April. President Thomas Jefferson actively condemned the day. In 1815, after the War of 1812, President James Madison proclaimed a holiday in November in thanks for victories. The custom was celebrated, mainly as a religious observance, locally and regionally by states, but on different dates.
Sara Josepha Hale, of Philadelphia, helped in the establishment of Thanksgiving as a formal national holiday. An author and editor, Hale penned ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb.’ In her quest to establish the holiday, she wrote editorials and sent thousands of letters. Her efforts finally moved President Abraham Lincoln. In the midst of the Civil War, he declared Nov. 26, 1863, as Thanksgiving Day.
Other presidents followed Lincoln’s example. But, in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt changed the date from the fourth to the third Thursday of November to accommodate the wishes of business merchants, who were eager for more shopping time before Christmas. This caused so much opposition that in 1941, a Congressional Joint Resolution again made Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday of November.