As the old joke goes, “Thanksgiving must be coming soon! I heard Christmas carols at the shopping mall yesterday!” Do you know when and how our national holiday of Thanksgiving started? It is generally believed that in 1621, the Pilgrims invited Wampanoag Indians to a feast in Plymouth Colony to celebrate their first harvest, and a good time, with turkey and pumpkin pie, was had by all. Well, not quite.
Historians, including those at Plimoth Plantation, a living museum in Plymouth, Mass., say that they do know there was a feast that year shared by the colonists and Wampanoag Indians. But the one historical account of the actual dinner says venison was served and some sort of fowl, but it doesn’t specifically mention turkey. Pumpkin was available, but it is not likely the colonists whipped up a pie.
If you think Americans have been celebrating Thanksgiving annually since 1621, guess again. Nobody at the time thought of it as the start of a new tradition, and there had been similar gatherings elsewhere earlier. Historians know there was another feast in the colony in 1623 — but it was held earlier in the year. Different colonies celebrated their own days of thanksgiving during the year.
In 1789, George Washington declared Thursday, Nov. 26, a Thanksgiving holiday, but only for that year, and it wasn’t connected to the Pilgrim feast but rather intended as a “public thanksgiving and prayer” devoted to “the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”
The annual American celebration of Thanksgiving Day did not begin until 1863. Sarah Josepha Hale, best remembered for penning “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” read about the 1621 feast of the Pilgrims and became captivated with the idea of turning it into a national holiday. She began a lobbying campaign to persuade President Abraham Lincoln to make Thanksgiving an official annual holiday. On October 3, 1863, with the nation embroiled in a bloody Civil War, President Lincoln issued a proclamation setting aside the last Thursday in November as a national day of thanks.
But some wanted to start playing Christmas carols earlier at the marketplace. So in 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt agreed to move Thanksgiving up a week, in an effort to extend the already important shopping period before Christmas and spur economic activity during the Great Depression. While several states followed FDR’s lead, others balked, with 16 states refusing to honor the calendar shift, leaving the country with dueling Thanksgivings. Faced with increasing opposition, Roosevelt reversed course just two years later, and in the fall of 1941, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution returning the holiday to the fourth Thursday of November.
As we approach Thanksgiving 2016, which in recent months of national campaigning has evolved into something of a “civil war” of its own making, I think Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation bears hearing.
The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.
In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and provoke their aggressions, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict; while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.
Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.
No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.
It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United Stated States to be affixed. — Abraham Lincoln
“Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus”
(1 Thessalonians 5:18).
I’ll see you at the Table of Thanksgiving this Sunday.