History of Our Thanksgiving Holiday

An act of kindness or diplomacy in the fall of 1621 has morphed over the years into one of our best loved national holidays.  The first “Thanksgiving” was a three-day feast held sometime between September 21 and November 11, 1621.  The remnants of the Pilgrim party who had arrived in the Mayflower in 1620 were joined by 90 or so of the local Wampanoag tribe, including Chief Massasoit, for a harvest party. For the record, William Bradford, who led the pilgrims, had sent men out “fowling” and narratives of the time indicate the Indians brought some deer for dinner. They also likely ate dried berries, fish, clams, plums, and boiled pumpkin. It seems likely most of the foods were prepared “Indian style” since the pilgrims don’t appear to of had much in the way of cooking equipment ashore at that time. Thanksgiving was observed on and off in the colonies for years after that as a sort of autumn observance. We can credit George Washington for beginning the process of turning this sporadic feast into a national holiday. George issued a proclamation on October 3, 1789 declaring in suitable legalese of the day: “… 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– That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks–for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation–for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war–for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed–for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted–for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us…” While George’s proclamation settled the 26th of November, 1789 as the first official American Thanksgiving it did not completely settle the matter and individual states and areas celebrated when and if they saw fit. It fell to President Abraham Lincoln to unify the country around a common day for a Thanksgiving celebration.  Lincoln had been influenced by Sarah Josepha Hale the author of the “Mary Had a Little Lamb” nursery rhyme.  Hale had been advocating for a national, annual Thanksgiving holiday for years. In the run up to the Civil War, Hale saw the holiday as a way to give hope and unity to a divided nation.  and belief in the nation and the constitution. So, with the nation torn apart during the Civil War and Lincoln searching for a way to bring the country together, he discussed the matter with Hale. The result of their discussions was Lincoln’s proclamation of Thanksgiving as a national holiday. On October 3, 1863,  Lincoln wrote: “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….”  Presidents after Lincoln continued to honor the tradition by issuing their own proclamations of Thanksgiving. That seemed to work out pretty well till the late 1930s when some slippage began to be apparent. In 1939 Roosevelt proclaimed November 23 as Thanksgiving Day but a number of states had already declared November 30, the last Thursday of the month, as their Thanksgiving Day. In effect, the country got two thanksgivings. Roosevelt had actually moved Thanksgiving a week earlier than it was traditionally celebrated in part to help kick off the Christmas season and get some more sales in. It will come as no surprise that this set off a great hue and cry in the country that wasn’t resolved until Congress passed a law on December 26, 1941, ensuring that all Americans would celebrate a unified Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November every year. And that, friends and neighbors, is how we got to Thanksgiving today. Homer Smith insurance wishes you a very happy and safe one.

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