Some of the most popular imagery associated with Thanksgiving is, of course, Pilgrims. But when we scroll back through history, the way in which those early Americans celebrated Turkey Day looks quite different from our modern traditions. For one thing, Thanksgiving was not always a Thursday (or even a November) holiday.
Some fun facts about America’s first celebrations of Thanksgiving:
- The famous first celebration took place in mid-October 1621 (not November) and probably lasted several days (which we wish was still the case).
- The next Thanksgiving, in 1623, was held in JULY (not November).
- The first officially “proclaimed” Thanksgiving was held in Charlestown, Massachusetts Bay Colony on June 29, 1676 (also not November. Seeing a trend here?)
Obviously there weren’t any hard and fast rules on when Thanksgiving should be celebrated. So how, you might ask, did we end up with a scheduled Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday in November?
By the time of the American Revolution, various colonies had been celebrating Thanksgiving on various days at various times of the year, but usually coinciding with the Fall harvest. In 1777 (after the Battle of Saratoga), George Washington and the Continental Congress followed the lead of several colonies and declared the first nationwide Thanksgiving on Thursday, December 18. Twelve years later, in 1789, President Washington issued a proclamation declaring Thursday, November 26 to be the first official Thanksgiving in the newly established independent nation.
Fast forward to the 1850s and Thanksgiving had become an annual tradition in most states, along with the associated turkeys, pumpkins and big meals with extended family. However, the governor of each state determined their own Thanksgiving dates rather than relying on an official decree from the federal government. Can you imagine trying to line up your Thanksgiving get together with out of state relatives whose states celebrate on different weeks? By the time of the Civil War, frustration with this lack of unanimity and increased anxiety associated with the war encouraged President Abraham Lincoln to make George Washington’s Thanksgiving official, designating it on the last Thursday of November.
A quote from President Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Day proclamation (1863):
“It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”
After that, Presidents would annually decree that Thanksgiving was to fall on the last Thursday in November (with just a couple exceptions) until 1939. That year, in an effort to get holiday spending and the associated economic boost started a week earlier, FDR decided to move Thanksgiving to the next-to-last Thursday of the month. This really threw people for a loop and caused confusion throughout the country as people and companies tried to rearrange their calendars to fit the new date.
Due to ongoing confusion with the holiday calendar, Thanksgiving was officially designated as not the last or the third, but the FOURTH Thursday of November by Congress in 1941, making life a whole lot simpler for all of us today. Generally this means that Thanksgiving falls on the last Thursday of the month, except for the occasional years which have five Thursdays in November.
So this month, when you have the fourth Thursday off from work and drive three hours for dinner at Grandma’s house, remember how long it took America to come to an agreement on when to celebrate Thanksgiving. It’s another thing to add to you list of things you’re thankful for… would you really want to sit down to Thanksgiving dinner in July?
**Thanks to CHM Senior Researcher Tom Gronski (Intrepid Researcher Tom™) for pulling together this information – we’ll be back next week with some more of his research on the Campbells and Thanksgiving.