How Thanksgiving Became a National Holiday

Learn how Thanksgiving became a national holiday , and the first proclaimation by President George Washington.

The Thanksgiving Day is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of every November. The holiday was set by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 (approved by Congress in 1941). Earlier it was the last Thursday in November as was designated by the former President Abraham Lincoln. But sometimes the last Thursday would turn out to be the fifth Thursday of the month. This falls too close to the Christmas, leaving the businesses even less than a month's time to cope up with the two big festivals. Hence the change. But irrespective of the date of celebration the Thanksgiving Day has been observed as the national holiday since the regime of Lincoln.

Several Presidents, including George Washington, made one-time Thanksgiving holidays. Although the demand for making it a regular national holiday came in from various quarters, but of little impact. In 1827, Mrs. Sarah Joseph Hale began lobbying several Presidents for the proclamation of Thanksgiving as a national holiday. It didn't see success until 1863 when Abraham Lincoln finally made it a national holiday with his 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation. So it was Lincoln who resumed the tradition. And it has continued to the present days. Probably the last Thursday of November was set by Lincoln to somewhat correlate with the anchoring of the Mayflower at Cape Cod, which occurred on November 21, 1620 as per the modern Gregorian calendar. To the Pilgrims who used the Julian calendar it was November 11.

But how was the day celebrated before President Lincoln did it?

Well, unfortunately before Lincoln, the festival did not assume the national significance and was not celebrated as an annual festive occasion throughout United States.

In 1817 New York State adopted Thanksgiving Day as an annual custom. By the middle of the 19th century many other states did the same. However, it was yet to assume a national significance. Instead it would only come as an annual Presidential proclamation. It was introduced as part of the proclamation during the American Revolution (late 1770's), when a day of national thanksgiving was suggested by the Continental Congress. Finally, Thanksgiving made its debut with the Independent America in 1777, the next year after its birth. Unfortunately the practice ceased for 45 years in the early 1800s. Finally it was Lincoln who gave the nation a break.

The First Proclamation :

General George Washington and his army, as instructed by the Continental Congress, stopped in bitter weather in the open fields on their way to Valley Forge. And, Washington, as the nation's first President, declared November 26, 1789, as a national day of "thanksgiving and prayer." A few months after his inauguration, Washington issued "Presidential Proclamation Number One", his Thanksgiving as the first President. He voiced his personal conviction that "it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God."

Two hundred years later at Valley Forge, the National Thanksgiving Commission was instituted in the George Washington Chapel.

Thanksgiving Proclamation, by George Washington, in 1789:

Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me to "recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:"

George WashingtonNow, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States 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; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enable to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand, at the city of New York, the 3d day of October, A.D. 1789.

G. Washington

Pre-Independence Period :
During the colonial regime Thanksgiving proved to be a significant event in promoting national unity. The first issue of the First Continental Congress as they met at Carpenters Hall was "Can we open the business with prayer?" Despite their diversity of religions, after fierce debate, inspired by delegate Sam Adams, their first official act was prayer - with remarkable results. From the first day, miraculous unity seemed to have held the far-flung colonies together.

Before this Thanksgiving was more or less locally confined.

We know the mythical first Thanksgiving Day celebration was exclusively a Plymouth affair taken part by the Pilgrims and the local native Indians. History has not been much specific about the actual date when it was held. Sources, however, point out that it was somewhere between September 21 and November 9, most likely in very early October in 1621, the year following their arrival on the New World though some of their descendants later made a "Forefather's Day" that usually occurred on December 21 or 22.

There was hardly any concrete evidence that the second Thanksgiving was celebrated in the later years.
At least not until July 8, 1630 which marked the first Thanksgiving of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The then Governor John Winthrop documented it in his records: "We kept a days of thanksgiving in all the plantations."

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