Today is the fourth Thursday in November, annually celebrated in the United States as Thanksgiving Day since 1941. It was on this date – 26 November – in 1789 that President George Washington proclaimed a national day of Thanksgiving and in 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln set Thanksgiving Day as the final Thursday of November. It is definitely my favorite of all American holidays and the period of time each year that I miss my family the most. I could almost kill for a taste of a genuine roast turkey breast with my mom’s gravy as well as her homemade pumpkin pie.
According to Wikipedia, “Prayers of thanks and special thanksgiving ceremonies are common among almost all religions after harvests and at other times. The Thanksgiving holiday’s history in North America is rooted in English traditions dating from the Protestant Reformation. It also has aspects of a harvest festival, even though the harvest in New England occurs well before the late-November date on which the modern Thanksgiving holiday is celebrated.”
Traditionally, American Thanksgiving is traced to a 1621 three-day harvest feast by the settlers at Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts commonly called the Pilgrims. They had been taught how to catch eels and grow corn by a Patuxet Native American named Squanto who lived with the nearby Wampanoag tribe. He also acted as an interpreter as he’d learnt English while enslaved in Great Britain. The Wampanoag leader Massasoit had given food to the colonists during the first winter when supplies brought from England. The Pilgrims celebrated their first harvest with a feast that recent research has placed sometime between 21 September and 11 November 1621; some 50 settlers (those still alive out of 100 who’d arrived on the Mayflower) and 90 Native Americans.
A true thanksgiving celebration was held by the Pilgrims on a date calculated to have been Wednesday, 30 July 1623, following a fast and a 14-day rain which contributed to a larger than usual harvest. The authority for this occasion came from Governor Bradford rather than the Church, making it possibly the first civil recognition of Thanksgiving in New England. Similar celebrations were first held in the Massachusetts Bay Colony (Boston) by the Puritans in 1630, in Connecticut starting around 1639 and by the Dutch in New Netherland (New York) in 1644. However, there are documentations of earlier harvest feasts and days of thanksgiving in areas of Spanish America (Florida, Texas, and New Mexico) and there was even a thanksgiving service held in the Commonwealth of Virginia as early as 1607 and the first permanent settlement at Jamestown holding a thanksgiving in 1610.
The individual colonies held thanksgiving observances at different times of the year throughout the eighteenth century, often in honor of a military victory, an adoption of a state constitution or an exceptionally bountiful crop. During the American Revolutionary War the Continental Congress appointed one or more thanksgiving days each year, each time recommending to the executives of the various colonies (later, states) the observance of these days in their territories. The First National Proclamation of Thanksgiving was given by the Continental Congress in 1777 from its temporary location in York, Pennsylvania, while the British occupied the national capital at Philadelphia. Delegate Samuel Adams created the first draft. Congress then adapted the final version. George Washington, leader of the revolutionary forces in the American Revolutionary War, proclaimed a Thanksgiving in December 1777 as a victory celebration honoring the defeat of the British at Saratoga.
As President, on October 3, 1789, George Washington made the following proclamation and created the first Thanksgiving Day designated by the national government of the United States of America:
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 signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”
Now 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, which we experienced 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 enabled 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 hath 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 unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord. To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease 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 third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.
George Washington again proclaimed a Thanksgiving in 1795. President John Adams declared Thanksgivings in 1798 and 1799. No Thanksgiving proclamations were issued by Thomas Jefferson but James Madison renewed the tradition in 1814, in response to resolutions of Congress, at the close of the War of 1812. Madison also declared the holiday twice in 1815; however, none of these was celebrated in autumn. By 1858 proclamations appointing a day of thanksgiving were issued by the governors of 25 states and two territories. In the middle of the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln, prompted by a series of editorials written by Sarah Josepha Hale, proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day, to be celebrated on the final Thursday in November 1863. Thanksgiving has been observed annually in the United States since 1863.
During the second half of the 19th century, Thanksgiving traditions in America varied from region to region. A traditional New England Thanksgiving, for example, consisted of a raffle held on Thanksgiving Eve (in which the prizes were mainly geese or turkeys), a shooting match on Thanksgiving morning (in which turkeys and chickens were used as targets), church services, and then the traditional feast which consisted of some familiar Thanksgiving staples such as turkey and pumpkin pie, and some not-so-familiar dishes such as pigeon pie. The earliest high school football rivalries took root in the late 19th century in Massachusetts, stemming from games played on Thanksgiving; professional football took root as a Thanksgiving staple during the sport’s genesis in the 1890s, and the tradition of Thanksgiving football both at the high school and professional level continues to this day. In New York City, people would dress up in fanciful masks and costumes and roam the streets in merry-making mobs. By the beginning of the 20th century, these mobs had morphed into “ragamuffin parades” consisting mostly of children dressed as “ragamuffins” in costumes of old and mismatched adult clothes and with deliberately smudged faces, but by the late 1950s the tradition had vanished entirely.
The observance of Thanksgiving was fixed as the fourth Thursday in November by a bill signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on 26 December 1941. This had first been observed in 1939 when there were five Thursdays in November. Roosevelt thought an earlier Thanksgiving would give merchants a longer period to sell goods before Christmas. Increasing profits and spending during this period, Roosevelt hoped, would help bring the country out of the Depression. At the time, advertising goods for Christmas before Thanksgiving was considered inappropriate.
In the United States, certain kinds of food are traditionally served at Thanksgiving meals. Baked or roasted turkey is usually the featured item on any Thanksgiving feast table (so much so that Thanksgiving is sometimes referred to as “Turkey Day”). Stuffing, mashed potatoes with gravy, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, sweet corn, various fall vegetables (mainly various kinds of squashes, such as butternut squash in New England), and pumpkin pie are commonly associated with Thanksgiving dinner. Green bean casserole was introduced in 1955 and remains a favorite. All of these are actually native to the Americas or were introduced as a new food source to the Europeans when they arrived. Turkey may be an exception. The Spaniards had brought domesticated turkeys back from Central America in the early 17th century, and the birds soon became popular fare all over Europe, including England, where turkey (as an alternative to the traditional goose) became a “fixture at English Christmases”. As a result of the size of Thanksgiving dinner, Americans eat more food on Thanksgiving than on any other day of the year.
Since 1924, in New York City, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is held annually every Thanksgiving Day from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to Macy’s flagship store in Herald Square, and televised nationally by NBC. The parade features parade floats with specific themes, scenes from Broadway plays, large balloons of cartoon characters, TV personalities, and high school marching bands. The float that traditionally ends the Macy’s Parade is the Santa Claus float, the arrival of which is an unofficial sign of the beginning of the Christmas season.
The day after Thanksgiving is known as Black Friday which, since the early 2000s, has been regarded as the beginning of the Christmas shopping season in the United States. Most major retailers open very early (and more recently during overnight hours) and offer promotional sales. Black Friday is not an official holiday, but California and some other states observe “The Day After Thanksgiving” as a holiday for state government employees, sometimes in lieu of another federal holiday such as Columbus Day. Many non-retail employees and schools have both Thanksgiving and the following Friday off, which, along with the following regular weekend, makes it a four-day weekend, thereby increasing the number of potential shoppers. It has routinely been the busiest shopping day of the year since 2005.
In 2008, President George W. Bush signed legislating designating the Friday after Thanksgiving as Native American Heritage Day as a day to pay tribute to Native Americans for their many contributions to the United States.
The Saturday after Thanksgiving is sometimes called Small Business Saturday, a movement promoting shopping at smaller local establishments. The Monday after Thanksgiving is sometimes called Cyber Monday, as a result of heavy online shopping when people return to their workplaces (which, in the past, typically offered far better internet connectivity). The Tuesday after Thanksgiving is sometimes called Giving Tuesday, to encourage charitable giving.