A Brief History of Thanksgiving in the US

Many adults in America remember November from their childhood as a time to make paper turkeys and learn about some strangely dressed people called Pilgrims.  Celebrating Thanksgiving meant time off from school, parades on television and endless lessons in history class about a distant day of feasting and cooperation among the Native Americans and Pilgrims dressed all in black.  For the fortunate, that Thursday in November culminated in lots of relatives, food that was not seen any other time of the year and leftovers for days.  For many others, it was a time to seek a warm meal at a shelter or church or just another day when no school meant no lunch.

Current research is changing the perception of Thanksgiving for many people.  Despite very little concrete evidence about whether there actually was a first Thanksgiving back in 1621, stories, myths, legends and traditions have evolved over the years as different generations made the holiday what they wanted it to be.  It has become a controversial topic as different groups argue over the accuracy of the origins of the day that most Americans observe as a day to feast, watch football and study the store ads to formulate a game plan for “Black Friday.”

In the early years of United States history, the observation of Thanksgiving was intermittent and often only celebrated in certain areas of the country.  On October 3rd, 1789 George Washington proclaimed the first Thanksgiving Day observation for the brand new country to be observed on Thursday November 26 of that year and he repeated the request in 1795.  There were national Thanksgiving observations under President John Adams in 1797 and 1798 but none from Thomas Jefferson.  James Madison made an attempt to revive the event in 1814 but it was not until 1863 when Abraham Lincoln tried to soothe a war-torn country with a national day of thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November that it became an annual holiday.  In 1939 when November had five Thursdays, President Roosevelt changed the observation from the last Thursday to the fourth Thursday and in 1940 and 1941, Thanksgiving was celebrated on the third Thursday.  President Roosevelt was trying to extend the holiday shopping period to ease the Depression.  This was met with mixed feelings and only half of the states followed the President’s declaration.  The confusion was finally eliminated in December of 1941 when President Roosevelt signed the bill making the fourth Thursday in November a federal holiday.

About Pam Linkous

Editor of my high school newspaper back when papers were carved into stone tablets and delivered by oxen, I now spend my days unraveling the mysteries of Blackboard (like, you mean my instructor has my paper NOW...I just accidently pressed enter....oh noooooo) and trying to understand how textbooks today cost more than tuition did when I went to college the first time. Despite needing several more hours per day to get everything done (who do I e-mail, Facebook, blog about that?), I still love to write and am willing to take on assignments that do not require staying up past my bedtime.
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