Days of Thanksgiving were commonplace in America before The Pilgrims. It wasn’t until the 1860s that “Thanksgiving” bore any semblance to the holiday we enjoy today. Here’s a look at the history of Thanksgiving in America.
The First “Thanksgivings”
Even though they get credit for it, the Pilgrims were not the first group to celebrate Thanksgiving in North America. As a matter of fact, the big celebration they had in 1621 that children all over the county will be reenacting this week, wasn’t the first time they had a “Thanksgiving” in the “New World.”
In the early 17-century, it was commonplace in Europe for governments to set aside days for giving thanks for God. This could be for a good crop that came, when droughts ended, attacks suppressed. The Americans would have thanksgiving celebrations when supply ships would arrive from Europe safely.
On September 8, 1565, Spanish explorer Pedro Melendez de Avile invited the Timucua tribe to dine with the Spaniards in Saint Augustine, Florida, for a thanksgiving celebration.
In 1598, another Spanish Explorer Juan de Onate, held a Thanksgiving festival in San Elizario, Texas after crossing over 350 of Mexican desert.
And, on December 4, 1619, upon arriving about 20 miles from Jamestown, Virginia, 38 settlers landed on James River. Their charter required that upon landing that they would set aside the day as a day of thanksgiving on that day and every year thereafter. Unfortunately, the tradition only lasted until 1622 when many of the settlers were killed and the survivors fled to Jamestown because of the “Indian Massacre of 1622.”
Yes, In 1621, the Pilgrims had a feast that is considered the forerunner to the holiday we all love. Now the Pilgrims were devout Christians and at the time, the way you had a “devoutly Christian” celebration would be to be sort of a solemn occasion – marked by prayer and community worship. The event was chronicled by Edward Winslow who stated that, “Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that se we might after a special manner rejoice together.” So they returned with enough food for the 50 remaining Pilgrims–if you remember, that’s about half of who arrived at Plymouth Rock a year earlier. Around 90 Native Americans came with five deer and they had a three day celebration.
We’ll get back to the solemn occasion here in a bit, but one of the reasons it’s a huge national holiday…and why we’re writing about it here on a “History of Elections” website.
George Washington and The First Presidents
National days of giving thanks were nothing new. And the practice continued throughout the Colonial Era. For instance, when the British surrendered to the Americans at Saratoga in 1777, the Continental Congress suggested that there be a national day to give thanks to God. So, General Washington proclaimed that December 18, 1777 would be the first US Thanksgiving .
In 1789, President Washington issued a proclamation that designated November 26 to be a national day of thanksgiving to recognize the role of Providence in creating the United States and Constitution. (It’s interesting to note that Washington issued the proclamation to the state governors asking them to observe in their states.)
This Thanksgiving was not established as a Federal holiday. Washington actually spent the day by attending services at St. Paul’s Chapel in New York and donated food and beer to imprisoned debtors.
Washington issued another proclamation in 1795 to recognize the defeat of the rebellion that we now call the Whisky Rebellion. Other presidents like Adams and Madison did continue the practice of observing days of thanksgiving.
Thomas Jefferson, though, who thought that public demonstrations of piety to a higher power were inappropriate because of the whole separation of church and state.
Back to the Pilgrims
Edward Winslow took his account of the Pilgrims Feast with the Native Americans to London where it was published in 1622. Winslow’s story described a more secular event which lasted three days.
Sarah Josepha Hale, best known for writing “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” learned about Winslow’s account of Winslow’s account of the 1621 feast.
Hale campaigned for nearly 20 (beginning her efforts in 1846) years to get Thanksgiving to be a national holiday. She liked how there were nationals days set from time to time that were designated as giving thanks to God, but they were solemn days of fasting and prayer. She wanted a feast!
She lobbied congressmen, wrote letters every year to every governor in the US and sent regular mail to the president trying to get Thanksgiving to be a federal holiday. Her efforts spanned 5 presidencies–finally Abraham Lincoln listened. Until 1863, the only Federal holidays were Independence Day and Washington’s Birthday–so, to add another national holiday would be a big deal!
Abraham Lincoln to Franklin Roosevelt
So, Lincoln reads Sarah Hale’s letter on September 28, 1863, and on October 3, 1863, Lincoln declares the last Thursday in November to be a national holiday. From 1863 until Congress officially set the date into law in 1941, every US President, with the exception of Franklin Roosevelt would annually declare the last Thursday in November as a national holiday of giving thanks.
We have Sarah Josepha Hale to thank for our traditions of eating turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. It’s unlikely the Pilgrims’ table looked like ours.
In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving one week earlier than normal, believing that doing so would help bolster retail sales during one of the final years of the Great Depression. This led to much upheaval and protest, causing some to deride the holiday as “Franksgiving.”
This change affected the holiday plans for millions of people. College football teams feared they’d play their games to empty stadiums, schools had to change their academic schedules, and other disruptions were felt all over the United States.
Interestingly enough, a Gallup poll indicated that Democrats favored the change in date 52% to 48%, and Republicans opposed it 79% to 21%. Overall, Americans opposed the change in date 62% to 38%.
The following year (1940), twenty-three states and the District of Columbia recognized FDR’s date, while twenty-two states observed the traditional date. Colorado, Mississippi, and Texas celebrated both weeks.
A joint resolution, signed into law by Roosevelt in 1941, formally designated that the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day.
Pardon the Turkey, Already!
In 1863, the Lincoln family added a turkey to their White House collection of rabbits, horses, goats, and other animals. You know what happens when you give an animal a name. . . You can’t eat it! The family named him “Jack.”
Abraham Lincoln’s son, Tad, took a liking to Jack and trained him to follow behind as the boy, dressed in a Union soldier’s uniform, marched around the White House. When Tad asked his father to pardon the turkey, Lincoln agreed and Jack became the newest family pet.
Since the 1940s, the National Turkey Federation has presented the United States Presidents a live domestic turkey. On occasion, the President has decided to spare the bird. The pardoning of the turkey became an annual tradition in 1989 with George H. W. Bush.
Election College Podcast
Learn more about the history of Thanksgiving in America in Episode 144 of the Election College podcast!
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