The actual date of the first Thanksgiving is unknown. Colonist Edward Winslow recorded that it was held in the fall of 1621, but no specific date was given.
The significance of the 1621 event was not immediately evident and thereafter, days of Thanksgiving were celebrated for a variety of local economic, religious or political reasons. The first “national” day of Thanksgiving, for example, was held December 18, 1777 to commemorate the American victory at the Battle of Saratoga. That event was created by the Confederation Congress which wrote that “It is therefore recommended to the Legislative or executive Powers of these UNITED STATES, to set apart THURSDAY, the eighteenth Day of December next, for solemn THANKSGIVING and PRAISE; That at one Time and with one Voice the good People may express the grateful Feelings of their Hearts, and consecrate themselves to the Service of their Divine Benefactor”
In 1789, George Washington set the first official Thanksgiving date for November 26. That, he said was to be a day of “public thanksgiving and prayer” for the new nation and its new Constitution. The date coincides with modern Thanksgivings, but it still was not the impetus for an annual national holiday.
For the next few decades, national Thanksgiving Proclamations were issued for a variety of reasons. Washington issued another in 1795 for keeping the country out of foreign conflicts. James Madison issued one in 1814, and another in 1815 in response to the War of 1812. Those would be the last, however, until 1862, when both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis issued Thanksgiving proclamations for victory in battle in the Civil War. Lincoln’s was for the third week of April, while Davis’ was for the 18th of September. Presidents also issued a variety of calls for days of “fasting and humiliation.”
None of these, however, resembled our modern Thanksgiving. Those celebrations were largely centered in New England, and held on a variety of dates spread out across the year. The celebration was generally unknown in the South.
In 1863, however, Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring an annual day of Thanksgiving. Lincoln believed that doing so would help bring the nation together in the crisis of the Civil War.
Lincoln apparently was persuaded by Sara Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book and one of the most influential women of her time. Hale, who wrote “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” had been working since 1846 to establish a national Thanksgiving holiday. Her efforts led her to correspond with five presidents, including Zachary Taylor, Millard Filmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln.
Hale, incidentally, also was responsible for the preservation of George Washington’ s Mt. Vernon and the Bunker Hill monument.
Lincoln’s proclamation set Thanksgiving as the last Thursday of the month of November. It would remain on this date until 1939. Each year, the President would declare a national day of Thanksgiving, and the Governors of each of the states would follow suit.
Thanksgiving Day 1939 — in the midst of the Great Depression — would fall not only on the last Thursday of November, but also on the last day of November, period. This caused some distress among retailers, who thought the calendar made the Christmas shopping season too short.
Roosevelt responded by moving Thanksgiving up that year to the second Thursday. Retailers were happy, but it caused a great deal of confusion in the rest of the population. Sporting events had to be rescheduled; family vacations were thrown into chaos. Several Governors refused to go along. The Mayor of Atlantic City called the new holiday “Franksgiving.”
In the end, twenty-three states went along with the new date, while twenty three others stayed with the traditional one. Colorado and Texas celebrated both.
The longer holiday shopping season apparently worked for the states that participated. Roosevelt repeated the retailing stunt again in 1940. But by 1941, Congress had enough. In October of that year, the House of Representatives passed a resolution to make the last Thursday in November the “official” Thanksgiving. The Senate, however, mindful that November sometimes has five Thursdays, amended the resolution to make it the fourth Thursday instead. The amendment was agreed to and Roosevelt signed the bill on Dec. 26, 1941.
Thus was established the Federal Thanksgiving Holiday.