Thanksgiving in America Through the Years
The mercies which, notwithstanding our great Unworthiness, we are constantly receiving at the Hands of Almighty God, ought ever to remind us of our obligations to him; and it becomes our especial duty at the Close of a year, to unite together in rendering thanks to the Divine Dispenser of all good for the bounties of his providence conferred on us in the course thereof.
—The Council and Assembly of the State of New Hampshire on November 19th, 1778, as they began their “Proclamation of a Public Thanksgiving”—
Days of thanksgiving and prayer in North America typically are considered to have their genesis in what often is called the “First Thanksgiving”—a three-day feast held by the Pilgrims with their Native American friends in 1621 after they’d been blessed with a bountiful harvest. Edward Winslow, who participated in the event, wrote,
[O]ur harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.
The previous winter had not been kind to the Pilgrims; half of their number had died, leaving but fifty of the original party that had traveled across the Atlantic on the Mayflower. Secular attempts to remove the religious element from the historical record have fostered a great many misconceptions about the Pilgrims. The true story of their arrival in the New World and their efforts to settle and prosper in New England is both interesting and inspiring. It’s also instructive for 21st century Americans.
The First Thanksgiving, painted by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930).
The Pilgrims essentially planted the seeds from which would spring the United States of America. Often recalling the Pilgrims, their community, and their struggles in the New World, Thanksgiving proclamations in the United States have a rich history. Even before the Colonies emerged victorious from the Revolutionary War, proclamations recommending prayer and thanksgiving were issued. Moreover, from America’s earliest days as a nation, the leaders of the United States, including the Continental Congress and George Washington, designated specific days and encouraged the people to offer prayers and thanks to God. Such declarations came not just from the national government, but from the states as well.
An Annual Observance Gains Traction
How did Thanksgiving become a national holiday in America? The idea gained traction during the Civil War. It was championed by Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879), a writer and an editor of ladies’ magazines for many years. Encouraged in part by several editorials Hale had penned as well as a personal letter Hale wrote to him, President Abraham Lincoln issued the first of what would become an unbroken line of annual presidential Thanksgiving proclamations. The tradition has lasted for more than 150 years, even to the present day.
You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritive fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.
—Sarah Josepha Hale, in a letter to President Abraham Lincoln dated September 28, 1863—
The proclamations truly are remarkable. Yet, as we might expect in our modern day as secularism has strengthened its grip on the culture, some more recent proclamations point less to God and more to community, diversity, and multiculturalism. Even so, with a holiday rooted so deeply in tradition and in America’s Christian heritage, it has been nearly impossible for our leaders to depart totally from acknowledging God and His care. On this page, you’ll find some excerpts from these documents—a few from America’s earliest days and at least one from each president since Abraham Lincoln. Reading them, you’ll be encouraged, moved, and inspired.
A Federal Holiday Is Set
Of course, a presidential proclamation alone does not officially establish a federal holiday. Thanksgiving became an official national holiday in 1941, after three years of confusion and chaos. Confusion? Really? Over Thanksgiving? No kidding!
In 1789, President George Washington’s Proclamation for a Day of National Thanksgiving called for the observance to be held on November 26, the final Thursday in the month. With the first annual Thanksgiving Day recognized by President Lincoln in 1863 and with nearly all those that followed through 1938, Thanksgiving day was observed, again, on the last Thursday in November. Andrew Johnson’s proclamation in 1865 and Ulysses S. Grant’s proclamation in 1869 represent the only departures.
In 1933, the same year that Franklin Roosevelt took office, November had five Thursdays. Placing Thanksgiving on the traditional final Thursday of the month would make for a short Christmas shopping season, and merchants feared this would translate into smaller profits. They asked the new president to designate November 23 as Thanksgiving Day to lengthen the gift-buying period—and hopefully to increase their income. Remember that at that time America was in the throes of the Great Depression. Roosevelt stuck with tradition that year and the next (see also here), but in 1939, the calendar was a carbon copy of the one for the year in which FDR had been inaugurated. That year he departed from tradition and designated “Thursday, the twenty-third of November, 1939, as a day of general thanksgiving.”
An uproar ensued. Some businessmen were happy with the change, but many merchants who owned smaller shops worried customers might flock to the larger stores. Lengthening the Christmas shopping season, moreover, meant shortening the season for purchasing fall clothes, and this could have a potential negative effect for retailers as well. Calendars, which had been printed far in advance, no longer were accurate. And what about the football games that already had been scheduled? That issue, too, was a big deal!
Some states resisted the change while others went along with it, creating a situation for some extended families in which relatives wanting to get together lived in states observing the holiday a week apart (see here, here, and here). If you were fortunate enough to live in Texas or Colorado, you might could enjoy both the 23rd and the 30th as Thanksgiving Days, if your employer went along. These two states recognized both days!
Due to the confusion and upheaval, FDR’s chosen date for the holiday was given a special name: Franksgiving! The writers of the Jack Benny radio program had great fun with the idea of two Thanksgivings. (This is a picture of Jack in 1933.) Hear Jack’s sidekick, Mary Livingstone, read a special poem about it on this page.
The president departed from tradition in1940 and 1941 as well. In 1940, even though November had just four Thursdays, Roosevelt proclaimed Thursday, November 21—the third Thursday—as Thanksgiving (also go here). In 1941 he did it again, declaring November 20 as the official day.
President Roosevelt issued his 1941 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation on November 8. Yet, even before then, Congress had taken the initiative to settle the confusion and frustration FDR’s departure from tradition had caused. The lawmakers’ efforts, however, would not take effect until 1942. On October 6, 1941, the US House of Representatives passed a joint resolution that officially established Thanksgiving as an annual holiday on the final Thursday of each November.
A few weeks later, in December, the Senate passed an amendment naming the fourth Thursday as the official day.
The House agreed, and the president signed the bill on December 26, 1941.
The fourth Thursday in November typically is the last Thursday of the month, but in two instances it is not—when it falls on the 22nd, and when it falls on the 23rd. This represented a small, but acceptable, departure from tradition. At last the issue had been settled. Accordingly, in 1942, President Roosevelt invited “the attention of the people to the joint resolution of Congress approved December 26, 1941, which designates the fourth Thursday in November of each year as Thanksgiving Day,” and he added, “and I request that both Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 1942, and New Year’s Day, January 1, 1943, be observed in prayer, publicly and privately.”
Revelations from the Proclamations
While the Thanksgiving Proclamations of yesteryear are windows that allow us to learn about America’s godly heritage, we must not miss lessons they have for us today, in 2016. The proclamations don’t just reveal, they also issue an appeal.
America’s Thanksgiving Day Proclamations don’t just reveal truth about our country, they also issue an appeal.
I conclude this week’s post by focusing on the first of these elements; next week we will highlight a presidential Thanksgiving Day proclamation from the past and discuss how it issues a strong appeal to us in modern America.
What do presidential Thanksgiving proclamations reveal about us as a country, and about our leaders? In an article titled “Thanksgiving Through the Years,” the Heritage Foundation’s Lee Edwards examines trends in American presidents’ Thanksgiving proclamations and notes that “with the election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the coming of secular progressivism, God was given an increasingly secondary role while the ‘civic spirit’ of America was extolled.” Ronald Reagan, Lee affirms, was an exception to this trend.
Lee’s article is well worth reading, as it offers a window into America’s spiritual and cultural drift during the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Here’s an example. In 2013, one conservative news outlet highlighted just how remarkable it was that President Obama had mentioned God in his Thanksgiving Day Proclamation that year.
Also worth reading is an excellent piece published last year in The Federalist titled “What Our Presidents’ Thanksgiving Proclamations Tell Us About America.” Freelance writer Samantha Strayer contends,
Just as the status of a check-engine light speaks to the soundness of a vehicle, there are indicators throughout society that speak to the soundness of a nation. In a land as vast and populated as ours, with technological advancements once the sole province of science-fiction, it is nearly impossible to count such indicators.
But there is one—simple, short, and easy to read—that clearly reflects the spiritual health of the country: the annual Thanksgiving Day Proclamation.
- Service of God Versus Service to Others
- Executive Versus Legislative Dominance, and
- Reflection Versus a Jacked-Up Historical Account
I conclude here by commending Strayer’s article to you, and by encouraging you on this sacred holiday, not only to offer heartfelt thanks to God for His manifold blessings to our nation, but also to offer prayers on America’s behalf, that we might repent of our sins, both individual and corporate, and recover a sense of accountability to “the great Lord and Ruler of Nations.”
May it be so.
Copyright © 2016 by B. Nathaniel Sullivan. All Rights Reserved.
top image: The Landing of the Pilgrims by Henry A. Bacon