Our National Thanksgiving Day

Every American knows what Thanksgiving Day signifies.” 1897. 

“And few are they who do not note its advent almost with the delight which marks the coming of that greater, more sublime event, the nearby Christmastide. But it is not always easy, in noting the coming of a general holiday, to remember the precise history of its origin and the steps by which it has grown to be a national institution. On occasions of this kind it is therefore pleasant to refresh the memory with sufficient information to lead the mind into a pleasing contemplation of the fact that, in the development of the nation, we may trace the co-development of its best ideas.

Thanksgiving days there have always been, among all peoples of all times; but the American Thanksgiving Day is in no sense a borrowed ceremony. It had its natural origin in the sense of reverence and gratitude that marked the early Pilgrim Fathers as a truly God-fearing and religious people, who, no matter what their failings, never forgot that the fountain-head of all things was the Supreme Ruler of the Universe. It is because of this quality in the men of the Colony days that we find them holding, not days of carnival and hilarity, but days of thanksgiving to God, whenever occasion for rejoicing came to them.

The earliest record which we have of an American Thanksgiving Day is found in the New England annals of 1621. In the autumn of that year Governor Bradford, so saith the chronicler, sent out men to procure some game, in order that the New England Colonists might properly enjoy a day of thanksgiving in remembrance of the fruits of their labors during the year that had passed. Another day of rejoicing was set apart and “solemnized” as a day of thanksgiving unto the Lord,” after an abundant harvest in 1622. It is stated that, on this occasion, Massasoit and his council of braves were invited to participate in the festivities, and that they did so, spending three days in feasting. Evidently, the Indian friends of the Colonists found Thanksgiving Day a day to be made the most of.

These Thanksgiving Days were not, however, of official character. The first official public Thanksgiving Day was not until the year 1631; and even this day was not at first intended to lie a day of rejoicing and thanksgiving. It had been set apart as a day of fasting and prayer for relief. The colonists were in great distress; famine was imminent; a vessel laden with provisions, and long at sea, had not arrived. But just before the day of fasting came, the ship made port; and the day was then officially changed by the authorities from a day of sorrow to a day of thanksgiving. This was the first real Thanksgiving Day of the American people.

Thanksgiving days were occasionally observed also in the New Netherland after this date; but it was not until February, 1644, that another official Thanksgiving Day was proclaimed. That year, Governor Kieft proclaimed “a day of general thanksgiving,” the occasion being the victory of the Colonists over the Indians. At the conclusion of the peace, in 1645, another Thanksgiving Day was proclaimed. We are not told that the Indians were invited to this ceremony.

Occasional days of fasting, prayer, and thanksgiving were kept by the various Colonists, at different times; but no general Thanksgiving Day was set apart, until 1775, when the Continental Congress adopted the practice of designating such days. The first was Thursday, July 20, 1775. The following Thanksgiving Days were also suggested by the Continental Congress: Friday, May 17, 1776; December 11, 1776; Wednesday, April 22, 1778; Thursday, May 6, 1779; Wednesday, April 6, 1780; Thursday, May 3, 1781; and Thursday, April 25, 1782. These days were suggested in the form of recommendations to the States, whose governors were asked to issue proclamations to their peoples for days of thanksgiving. Business, with one exception, was suspended on these occasions. Washington also issued a special proclamation to the Colonial Army for a general Thanksgiving Day on Thursday, December 18, 1777; and again on May 7, 1778.

“Thursday, November 26, 1789, became the first National Thanksgiving Day of the American people.”

The first National Thanksgiving Day was, by proclamation of President Washington, set for Thursday, November 20, 1789. The second was set for Thursday, February 19,1795. The honor of the first suggestion seems to belong to Representative Elias Boudinot, who moved, in the House, that the President be requested to recommend “a day of Thanksgiving and Prayer, to be observed by the people of the United States.” There was some opposition to the motion, the objections advanced being that such a thing might tend to imitation of the frivolities and pomps of kingdoms and other harmful doing; but the motion prevailed, and Thursday, November 26, 1789, became the first National Thanksgiving Day of the American people.

Other presidents, after Washington, issued Thanksgiving Day proclamations, from time to time; until now it is become the annual practice of the President of the United States to name the last Thursday in November as a day to be observed by thanksgiving and prayer. Governors of States issue their proclamations to correspond, thus making the observance uniform throughout the land.

In the New England States Thanksgiving Day has been observed annually for over a century. The custom has extended to other States, one at a time, until, to-day, it prevails almost everywhere in the country, and is observed by Americans in foreign lands with a sentiment that is not only religious but patriotic. It is a legal holiday also. According to the official reports on the subject in 1888 there were, at that date, but eight sections of the country where Thanksgiving Day was not recognized:

Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana. Mississippi, Oklahoma, Utah. The rest of the Union had adopted the general custom. Latest reports (1897) show that there are now but three sections in which Thanksgiving Day is not officially recognized—Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi.”–Editor; Godey’s Magazine; Vol. 135; 1897.