We’ve all grown up with stories of the Pilgrims and the Indians gathering around at harvest time in the year 1621 to share the bounty of the New World. It was said to be a time of feasting. But what about the â€˜officialâ€™ declaration of a day of Thanksgiving? Well, hang onto your wishbones because there have been a lot of them!
The first recorded Thanksgiving observance was held on June 29, 1671 at Charlestown, Massachusetts by proclamation of the town’s governing council. In years to come, it was common for towns to gather together to celebrate a military victory or a bountiful crop.
The first national Thanksgiving Proclamations were those issued by the Continental Congress between 1777 and 1784. For example, on November 1, 1782, the United States Congress assembled in New Hampshire and proclaimed the 28th day of November to be a day of â€˜general Thanksgiving,â€™ including the words, â€˜it is recommended religiously to observe said day, and to abstain from all servile labour thereon.â€™ During this era, Thanksgiving day was not so much feasting as it was meant for fasting and prayer.
In 1789, President George Washington declared the first Thanksgiving observance under the new national government.
The date for a national day of Thanksgiving was standardized by President Abraham Lincoln, in a proclamation issued on October 3, 1863. Here is the history as documented in the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P. Basler:
President Lincoln issued an order for government departments to be closed for a local day of thanksgiving on November 28, 1861. Then, in 1863, Sarah Josepha Hale, a prominent magazine editor, wrote a letter to Lincoln urging him to have the “day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival.” She wrote, “You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritive fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.”
The proclamation that resulted set apart the last Thursday of November “as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise.” It specifically mentions the â€˜blessings of fruitful fields.â€™ To read the proclamation, click here.
Most presidents since that time have annually renewed the proclamation of a day of Thanksgiving, and the proclamations provide an interesting look at the state of the country and its economy at the time. For the full list, click here.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, Thanksgiving was not a fixed holiday. Trying to boost the economy during the depression, he agreed to a request from business leaders and moved the holiday to the third Thursday of November in 1939, thinking that would give a longer Christmas shopping period. It was an unpopular decision, however, and in 1941 he changed it back to the fourth Thursday.
One of the most eloquent Thanksgiving proclamations was actually issued by a state governor, Connecticut Governor Wilbur L. Cross, in 1936 â€“ just after devastating floods had impacted that state. You can read that popular proclamation here.
So, whether you claim pilgrims or presidents as the perpetrators of the annual holiday, and whether your preference is feasting or fasting, we at The Food Channel urge you to celebrate with the spirit of Thanksgiving that runs through all of the history â€“ thankfulness for blessings, bounty and beauty.