The History of Thanksgiving Day. How the Last Thursday in November Became a National Holiday. Why does the tradition of Thanksgiving Day seem to radiate such a hallowed feeling of harmony, wellbeing and the bond of American identity?
Most school children in America have experienced at least one “Pageant of Thanksgiving”. The cornucopia, big black hats, and the artistic interpretation of the most important guest at America’s Thanksgiving Day table, the Turkey. How have the collective ideas about this day of reflection come about in our culture? Has it always been a day that families and friends get together to eat, watch football, eat, take a nap and eat and yes, occasionally have that family squabble that interjects the reality of everyday life into the harmonious ambiance that the power of tradition imparts?
Celebration of a Copious Harvest – 1621
When the Pilgrims began their adventurous navigation of the Atlantic Ocean they had no idea that by the end of first year almost half of their number would pass away. The lack of food was a contributor but disease was the number one culprit. Food shortages were plentifully overcome with, what many in that day called Divine intervention. An English speaking Indian named Squanto taught these Pilgrims how to use fish as fertilizer. In the fall of 1621, there was such a bountiful harvest that they took 3 days to feast and to thank Providence for supplying their need and keeping half of them alive.
The Valley of the Shadow of Death – 1777
As fall approached, many Revolutionary soldiers, citizens and leaders had to dig very deep indeed to be thankful. The beginning of the year showed so much promise with George Washington’s legendary “Crossing”. Now, ultimate victory seemed remote. On the first significant 9/11 in US History, George Washington’s army was forced to retreat from Brandywine, which allowed Philadelphia to be taken. On September 19, General Burgoyne’s Northern Army was slowed at Freeman’s Farm but the threat to isolate New England was still very real. On October 2nd, disappointingly, defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory at Germantown, PA.
A Revolutionary Celebration
Then good news began to trickle in. Burgoyne had been forced to retreat after the battle of Bemis Heights on October 7th. Then even greater news! Burgoyne’s entire army had surrendered on October 19th! In short order, the Continental Congress in York, PA made this declaration.
“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”.
Thankfulness Can Heal
Days of Thanksgiving were declared by Presidential proclamation only seven times between 1789 and 1815. Then came Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879). This middle aged dynamo from New Hampshire also penned that famous nursery rhyme, “Mary has a Little Lamb”. Just before the civil war she began a letter writing campaign to every government official she could find. She claimed that a Thanksgiving Day would avoid civil war. She was unheeded, but Sarah Hale did not quit! Finally, three months after the famous Gettysburg battle in the Civil War, President Lincoln answered her cry. Here is part of his proclamation making Thanksgiving a Federal Holiday. .
“Set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise … 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.”
Sarah Hale said it best.
“There is a deep moral influence in these periodical seasons of rejoicing, in which whole communities participate. They bring out . . . the best sympathies in our natures.”