Thursday, November 19, 2009

A Bit of History

A national holiday in the United States since 1863, Thanksgiving has come to play a number of important roles in popular culture. It was customary in Europe to hold days of thanksgiving both for successful harvests and for events such as military victories, deliverance from plagues, and royal births. The date and site of the first Thanksgiving in what is now the United States are still debated, but the most famous in pre-independence times was that held in October, 1621 in the Plymouth Colony. There, European immigrants, "the Pilgrims," and indigenous Wampanoag Indians celebrated the harvest season with feasting that included the dish that would become a traditional part of the day: turkey. Throughout the colonial era, days of thanksgiving were common, especially in New England, but not universal or regular. Although national days of thanksgiving were proclaimed by the Continental Congress in 1777 and by President Washington in 1789, there was no great clamor for an annual festival until the nineteenth century.

Credit for the establishment of Thanksgiving Day as a nation-wide holiday must go to Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, the editor of an influential women's magazine (and author of "Mary Had a Little Lamb") who lobbied legislatures and presidents from 1827 on. In 1863 Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday of November as a day of "thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens," and since then it has been an annual celebration, though the date has varied. From 1939-1941 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in response to the complaints of businessmen that there was insufficient shopping time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, proclaimed Thanksgiving to be the third Thursday in November. This, however, created conflicts with the dating of the holiday in many states which had their own Thanksgiving legislation, so Congress in 1941 passed a joint resolution decreeing that the observance should fall on the fourth Thursday of November.

Bowler, Jerry. "Thanksgiving." St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. 5 vols. St. James Press, 2000. Reproduced in History Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale.

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