Prayers of thanks and special Thanksgiving ceremonies are common among almost all religions after harvests and at other times. The Thanksgiving holiday’s history in North America is rooted in English traditions dating from the Protestant Reformation. It also has aspects of a harvest festival, even though the harvest in New England occurs well before the late-November date on which the modern Thanksgiving holiday is celebrated.
Pilgrims and Puritans who emigrated from England in the 1620s and 1630s carried the tradition of Days of Fasting and Days of Thanksgiving with them to New England. The modern Thanksgiving holiday tradition is traced to a well-recorded 1619 event in Virginia and a sparsely documented 1621 celebration at Plymouth in present-day Massachusetts. The 1619 arrival of 38 English settlers at Berkeley Hundred in Charles City County, Virginia, concluded with a religious celebration as dictated by the group’s charter from the London Company, which required “that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned … in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.” The 1621 Plymouth feast and thanksgiving was prompted by a good harvest. The Pilgrims celebrated this with the Wampanoags, a tribe of Native Americans who, along with the last surviving Patuxet, had helped them get through the previous winter by giving them food in that time of scarcity, in exchange for an alliance and protection against the rival Narragansett tribe.
Several days of Thanksgiving were held in early New England history that have been identified as the “First Thanksgiving,” including Pilgrim holidays in Plymouth in 1621 and 1623, and a Puritan holiday in Boston in 1631. According to historian Jeremy Bangs, director of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum, the Pilgrims may have been influenced by watching the annual services of Thanksgiving for the relief of the siege of Leiden in 1574, while they were staying in Leiden, Netherlands. Now called Oktober Feest, Leiden’s autumn thanksgiving celebration in 1617 was the occasion for sectarian disturbance that appears to have accelerated the pilgrims’ plans to emigrate to America.
Later in Massachusetts, religious Thanksgiving services were declared by civil leaders such as Gov. Bradford, who planned the colony’s Thanksgiving celebration and feast in 1623. Bradford issued a proclamation of Thanksgiving following victory in the Pequot War in the late 1630s to celebrate “the bloody victory, thanking God that the battle had been won.” The practice of holding an annual harvest festival did not become a regular affair in New England until the late 1660s.
Thanksgiving proclamations were made mostly by church leaders in New England up until 1682, and then by both state and church leaders until after the American Revolution. During the revolutionary period, political influences affected the issuance of Thanksgiving proclamations. Various proclamations were made by royal governors, and conversely by patriot leaders, such as John Hancock, Gen. George Washington, and the Continental Congress, each giving thanks to God for events favorable to their causes.
Washington’s Thanksgiving proclamation history
Americans don’t know it and children aren’t taught it, but Washington is responsible for our Thanksgiving holiday. It was our first president, not the Pilgrims and not Abraham Lincoln, who led the charge to make this day of thanks a truly national event.
On Oct. 3, 1789, Washington issued his Thanksgiving proclamation, designating for “the People of the United States a day of public thanks-giving” to be held on “Thursday the 26th day of November,” 1789, marking the first national celebration of a holiday that has become commonplace in today’s households.
While subsequent presidents failed to maintain this tradition, it was Washington’s original proclamation that guided Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation. In fact, Lincoln issued his proclamation on the same day, Oct. 3, and marked the same Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, Nov. 26, as Washington, setting Thanksgiving as the last Thursday of November after our first president’s example. The proclamation was printed in newspapers, including the Oct. 9, 1789 issue of the Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser.
Washington first mentioned the possibility of a national Thanksgiving Day in a confidential letter to James Madison in August 1789 (just months after taking office), asking for his advice on approaching the Senate for their opinion on “a day of thanksgiving.”
By the end of September 1789, a resolution had been introduced to the House of Representatives requesting that “a joint committee of both Houses be directed to wait upon the President of the United States, to request that he would recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving.” The committee put the resolution before the president and Washington issued the first national Thanksgiving Proclamation within days.
Washington knew the value of a Thanksgiving day long before becoming our first president.
During the Revolutionary War, he would order special Thanksgiving services for his troops after successful battles, as well as publicly endorse efforts by the Continental Congress to proclaim days of thanks, usually in recognition of military victories and alliances.
Even in the 18th century, the concept of Thanksgiving was not new to the citizens of the new United States.
Colonists even before the Pilgrims often established Thank Days to mark certain occasions. These one-time events could occur at any time of the year and were usually more solemn than the Thanksgiving we observe today, emphasizing prayer and spiritual reflection.
President Lincoln proclaims official Thanksgiving holiday on Oct. 3, 1863, expressing gratitude for a pivotal Union Army victory at Gettysburg. President Lincoln announces that the nation will celebrate an official Thanksgiving holiday on Nov. 26, 1863.
The speech, which was actually written by Secretary of State William Seward, declared that the fourth Thursday of every November thereafter would be considered an official United States holiday of Thanksgiving. This announcement hearkened back to when Washington was in his first term as the first president in 1789 and the young American nation had only a few years earlier emerged from the American Revolution. At that time, Washington called for an official celebratory “day of public thanksgiving and prayer.” While Congress overwhelmingly agreed to Washington’s suggestion, the holiday did not yet become an annual event.
Thomas Jefferson, the third president, felt that public demonstrations of piety to a higher power, like that celebrated at Thanksgiving, were inappropriate in a nation based in part on the separation of church and state. Subsequent presidents agreed with him. In fact, no official Thanksgiving proclamation was issued by any president between 1815 and the day Lincoln took the opportunity to thank the Union Army and God for a shift in the country’s fortunes on this day in 1863.
The fourth Thursday of November remained the annual day of Thanksgiving from 1863 until 1939. Then, at the tail-end of the Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, hoping to boost the economy by providing shoppers and merchants a few extra days to conduct business between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, moved Thanksgiving to November’s third Thursday. In 1941, however, Roosevelt bowed to Congress’ insistence that the fourth Thursday of November be reset permanently, without alteration, as the official Thanksgiving holiday.
Thanksgiving was not made a legal holiday until 1941 when Congress named the fourth Thursday in November as our national day of thanks in answer to public outcry over President Roosevelt’s attempt to prolong the Christmas shopping season by moving Thanksgiving from the traditional last Thursday to the third Thursday of November.
Enjoy the holiday and be thankful for family, friends, the things you appreciate, our country, and those that have made and kept our freedoms, safety and rights in place since the beginning of our country.
Harold B. Wolford is president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1095. He served in the United States Army from 1970 to 1973.