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On November 26, 1789, President George Washington declared the first nationwide celebration of thanksgiving. President Franklin D. Roosevelt later signed a bill that officially established the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day.
How did the United States come to celebrate this holiday on the fourth Thursday in November? Why does Canada celebrate the same holiday on the second Monday in October? How did this become a holiday? And, what does the childhood poem “Mary Had a Little Lamb, whose fleece was white as snow” have to do with this?
Tens of thousands of years ago our ancestors began by being strictly hunters/gatherers. When they had a successful hunt or a good gathering they were thankful. As our ancestors started worshiping and praying to gods, they would offer thanks to that particular god for a successful hunt.
Then our ancestors began to be farmers. With this transition, our ancestors became dependent upon the weather and other factors, including the seasons. Now, instead of giving thanks on a daily basis, our ancestors would start to have a larger “thanks” celebration at the end of the growing season.
In England, thanksgiving religious services were important during the English Reformation. Prior to 1536 there were 147 Church holidays including Sundays when people were required to attend services. In 1536 that number was reduced to just 27. The Puritans desired to eliminate all of the religious holidays (including Easter and Christmas) and replace them with special called days of thanksgiving.
When immigrants came to the “New World” they would give thanks for arriving safely. In 1565, The Spanish had a thanksgiving celebration in what is now Saint Augustine, Florida. In 1598, Spanish also had a thanksgiving celebration in what became San Elizario, (El Paso County) Texas. In 1619, there was a celebration in Charles City County, Virginia. What many people consider the first thanksgiving celebration in what is now the United States occurred in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621 as a result of a bountiful harvest. During this three day feast, William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth, invited Native Americans to participate in the celebration.
During the 17th century, the holiday was celebrated most years throughout New England, becoming secular rather than a religious celebration. During the Revolutionary War, in 1777, the Continental Congress declared the first national day of thanksgiving. This celebration was in response to a victory at Saratoga, rather than a bountiful harvest. Then the celebration waned throughout the country.
Beginning during Millard Fillmore’s Presidency, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale attempted to have a national holiday made for Thanksgiving. Fillmore said “No”. Franklin Pierce also declined her request. James Buchanan likewise refused. Finally, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln designated the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving. This same persistent woman was a school teacher and publisher. In 1830, Sarah Hale wrote that poem “Mary Had a Little Lamb”.
As the years passed, every subsequent President after Lincoln designated Thanksgiving Day as the last Thursday in November. Then, in 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt deviated from this tradition and designated the second last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day. FDR continued this designation in 1940, and 1941. He did this in an effort to boost the economy by extending the Christmas shopping period. Then, in December of 1941, he signed a joint resolution of Congress permanently fixing the date of the holiday on the fourth Thursday in November.
In Canada, the holiday was also transient with November 6th becoming the normal day of celebration beginning at the end of the 19th century. Canada has a much shorter growing season because of its more Northerly location. In 1957, the Canadian Parliament moved the holiday to the second Monday in October to avoid conflicts with Armistice Day. Beginning in 1971, the (United States) Uniform Monday Holiday Act set the celebration of Columbus Day in the U. S. with Thanksgiving Day in Canada.
Other countries observe this holiday, but it is primarily celebrated in the United States and Canada. No other country celebrates the holiday as ardently as the United States. As you sit down to eat turkey, remember that Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey to be the national bird instead of the bald eagle. In a letter to his daughter he stated; “I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country! The turkey is a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America.”
Doc Halliday can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org