How we got Thanksgiving Day in America

Wikimedia Commons/BenSam

“Pilgrims” ride the famous Macy’s Turkey at Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, New York.

By Bill Moore

Most people are familiar with the holiday that we celebrate on Thursday, Thanksgiving. We learned about it as young children watching with anxious taste buds as our moms and dads prepared an annual feast for the eyes and the belly.

Its origins are in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Some 102 colonists, the “Pilgrims,” travelled across the Atlantic on the Mayflower in September of 1620 seeking religious freedom. It proved to be a horrendous crossing and a worse winter, during which most stayed aboard the ship. By the spring, nearly half were dead. The survivors received aid and instruction from Squanto, an Abenaki, and others of the Wampanoag a local tribe. Following a successful harvest, Governor William Bradford organized a celebration which has evolved into Thanksgiving.

Public domain

The Pilgrims going to Church, by George H Boughton.

During the subsequent 243 years, Thanksgiving celebrations were commonly held in the colonies and the states. In 1789, President George Washington issued a proclamation calling for the country to celebrate the recently hard-won independence and ratification of the Constitution.

President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation in the midst of the Civil War asking Americans to thank God for the blessings the country received. The 1863 proclamation still holds great meaning and should be read by all:

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.
“In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln
William H. Seward,
Secretary of State

The celebration was held that year and every ensuing year on the last Thursday of November, until President Franklin Roosevelt signed a bill recognizing the fourth Thursday of November as our official day of Thanksgiving.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/BenSam and Public domain

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