University of Maryland Extension

Thanksgiving: A Brief History

As we buckle down finishing the harvest and preparing for another cold winter, I take solace in knowing that the holidays are just around the corner. At the end of this month, my family – and I hope yours, too – will be gathered around the table and enjoying a decadent meal in celebration of Thanksgiving. 

Every child in school learns the story of the first Thanksgiving from which our modern holiday was born. But it’s less common knowledge that Thanksgiving has been a permanent national holiday for less than the last 100 years.

Setting aside time to give thanks is an old tradition, and many celebrations of thanksgiving were held in America even before the Mayflower arrived. Even so, the first American Thanksgiving is typically attributed to the Pilgrims and Native Americans in 1621. Celebrations of thanksgiving were relatively common thereafter but were not an annual event. Days of thanksgiving were declared occasionally, on a local scale and in response to specific events, such as the end of a drought. The New England Puritans observed these thanksgivings as religious holidays with prayer and sometimes fasting. Even through the eighteenth-century, thanksgiving days were observed like a Sabbath during the week. As the religious culture of the American people evolved, these days of thanksgiving eventually became more focused around family and feasting.

The first national thanksgiving was proclaimed by the Continental Congress in December of 1777 in response to a battle victory during the Revolutionary War. It was a somber celebration, and the proclamation recommended “that servile labor, and such recreation as though at other times innocent, may be unbecoming of this appointment, [and should] be omitted on so solemn an occasion.” After 1777, days of national thanksgiving were issued annually by Presidents Washington, Adams, and Monroe but only through 1815. After 1815, days of thanksgiving were still celebrated but on a state-by-state basis.

There was a feeling among many Americans, however, that Thanksgiving should be a national celebration. Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of a popular women’s magazine, made a strong argument for this case and influenced President Abraham Lincoln to proclaim a national Thanksgiving Day. In 1863, Lincoln declared two national thanksgivings: August 6 celebration of the victory at Gettysburg, and another on the last Thursday in November. Thanksgiving has been celebrated annually as a national holiday ever since.

While Lincoln reestablished a national thanksgiving, he did not make it a fixed annual holiday; presidents still had to declare a national thanksgiving each year. Thanksgiving was customarily proclaimed on the last Thursday in November, per Lincoln’s model. However, in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed Thanksgiving on the next-to-last Thursday in November. (That year, November had five Thursdays instead of four, which is the more common occurrence.) This move was met with much resistance from the American people as it broke from tradition. To resolve the dispute, Congress passed a resolution requiring Thanksgiving to be observed on the fourth Thursday of November, thus making Thanksgiving into an official federal holiday.

Today Thanksgiving is steeped in the traditions of feasting, family, and football, but it’s still also a time when people reflect on and give thanks for the blessings around them. Wishing you and your family a happy holiday!

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