The History of the Thanksgiving Thursday

by Lily Bessette


Thanksgiving is a time when many families gather to give thanks and feast. Along with this celebration of gratitude in our modern society, people go to parades and watch football. Of course, this is not how the Thanksgiving tradition began.

Typically, many view the first Thanksgiving as the celebration of the Pilgrims of Plymouth with the Wampanoag Indians for the fall harvest in 1621. The Catholic Native American, Squanto, actually orchestrated this Thanksgiving by teaching the starving Pilgrims how to get food. Yet, other celebrations of thanksgiving had occurred before this. On September, 1565 in Saint Augustine, Florida, Pedro Menendez de Aviles and 600 other Spanish settlers rejoiced their safe arrival in the New World and gathered with the Timucua Indians in a feast of bean soup. Similarly, on April 30, 1598, Don Juan de Onate and his fellow travelers had a celebration in the New World.  The first official proclamation about Thanksgiving was made on June 20, 1676 in Charlestown, Massachusetts, which announced that June 29th would be a day of thanksgiving.


Following these different historical celebrations of Thanksgiving, the American Thanksgiving has become a traditional holiday celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November. This specification of what date the holiday was to be observed on has a unique backstory.


On October 3, 1789, President George Washington proclaimed, “Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.” This proclamation represents the historical Thanksgiving that was more than just a holiday, but rather somewhat like a holy day where people would celebrate God and His Providence.


The tradition of Thanksgiving was continued and the date for the holiday was announced through presidential proclamation. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln made the last Thursday of November the standard date for the holiday. In 1933, there was a five-Thursday November that resulted in a request by retailers to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to move the Thanksgiving holiday a week earlier. This request was made because the retailers wanted people to have more time to shop for Christmas.  Roosevelt declined their request.


Unfortunately, in 1939, a large dispute occurred and two different Thanksgiving holidays were observed due to another five-Thursday November. This time, the retailers again requested that Roosevelt move the holiday up a week, but this time Roosevelt agreed. Many people felt that Roosevelt was favoring these large retailers in order for them to profit from the holiday. Thus, some governors decided their states would have Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of the month while President Roosevelt stuck with the second-to-last Thursday of the month.


Finally, on December 26, 1941, Congress passed a law that Thanksgiving was to be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November. Since then, Thanksgiving has continue to evolve into our modern celebration.

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