The History of Thanksgiving

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From Local Harvest to National Holiday

Every year on the fourth Thursday in November we as Americans celebrate Thanksgiving. In more modern times we have celebrated Thanksgivings by getting our whole families together for one big meal and then typically families will then watch a football game or parade on TV. Typical Thanksgiving foods include but are not limited to turkey, mashed potatoes, squash, pumpkin pie, stuffing, and cranberries. But Thanksgiving has not always been like this. So how did Thanksgiving evolve into the holiday we celebrate today?

The first Thanksgiving-like celebrations in North America started with the Native Americans, but these were more of harvest festivals. Native Americans sought to insure a good harvest with dances and rituals such as the Green Corn Dance of the Cherokees.

Then in late November 1620, the Pilgrims land at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts. That winter nearly half the Pilgrims died before spring because they were unprepared for the starvation and sickness of a harsh New England winter. Eventually the local Native Americans assisted in showing the Pilgrims farming and other survival skills needed to live off the land. To show their thanks and appreciation to the Native Americans, the two cultures met for a three-day feast starting on December 13, 1621; it was America’s first Thanksgiving Festival.

Thanksgiving was observed by local communities every now and then in autumn for more than 150 years. In 1789, now under their new constitution, President George Washington proclaimed that the whole United States celebrate Thanksgiving.

The next three presidents celebrated Thanksgiving as a two-day event. Then fourth President James Madison proclaimed Thanksgiving on April 13, 1815. He was the last president to celebrate Thanksgiving until sixteenth President Abraham Lincoln celebrated it in 1862.

The first push for an annual Thanksgiving holiday started in 1827 with Ladies Magazine and Godey’s Lady’s Book editor Sarah Josepha Hale. She printed articles in her magazines along with stories, recipes and scores of letters to governors, senators, and presidents.

On October 3, 1863, aided by the Union’s victory at the battle of Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that November 26th would be a national Thanksgiving Day, to be observed every year on the fourth Thursday of November. After 36 years of crusading, Sarah Josepha Hale had won her battle.

Since then only twice has a president changed the day of observation. President Franklin D. Roosevelt changed Thanksgiving Day in 1939 and 1940 to the third Thursday in November in order to give the merchants of the depression-era more selling days before Christmas. This change was found to be unpopular with citizens because they would then have had to reschedule Thanksgiving Day football games, parades, and other such events.

In 1941, a Congressional Joint Resolution officially set the fourth Thursday of November as a national holiday for Thanksgiving. And the rest is history.