Thanksgiving: our nation's
By Sam Johnson
"One of our Nation's oldest and most cherished
traditions, Thanksgiving Day brings us closer to our loved ones and invites us
to reflect on the blessings that enrich our lives . . . As we come together
with friends, family, and neighbors to celebrate, let us set aside our daily
concerns and give thanks for the providence bestowed upon us."
So begins the proclamation issued by
President Obama officially designating Thursday, Nov. 24, 2011 as a
"National Day of Thanksgiving."
By so doing,
President Obama follows a presidential tradition that goes back as far as
George Washington who proclaimed Nov. 26, 1789 as a nationwide day of
"public thanksgiving and prayer" so that the former colonists, now
Americans, would give thanks and acknowledge "with grateful hearts the
many single favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity
peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and
But this was
not the first American Thanksgiving.
have assigned this distinction to the colonists of Cape Henry, VA, who on April
29, 1607, supposedly celebrated a thanksgiving.
historians claim the distinction belongs to the settlers of Popham, Maine, who
on August 9, 1607, gathered for a "service of thanks" to celebrate
their group's safe journey to the New World.
historians do agree that the first Thanksgiving to be declared an annual
holiday was the one celebrated by the "Berkeley Hundred," members of
the Church of England who sailed to the New World in 1619 to seek religious
They sailed up
the James River of Virginia and set ashore at a place that became known as
Berkeley Plantation. There, on Dec. 4, 1619, they celebrated their safe and
successful voyage and declared Dec. 4 to be set aside as an annual holiday of
you ask any school-aged child when the first Thanksgiving was held, they will
undoubtedly retell the story of the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony who in 1621
under the guidance of Governor William Bradford, sat down with their Indian
friends led by chief Massasoit, and enjoyed a splendid feast of wild game,
squash, corn, yams, pumpkins, and more in order to celebrate and give thanks
for the bountiful crops that would see them through the severe winter ahead.
As it turns
out, however, the Plymouth Pilgrims didn't celebrate what they called their
first Thanksgiving until 1623, and it was a far cry from the harvest festival
recorded in 1621.
one account, "To the Pilgrims, a day of thanksgiving was a highly
religious day marked by attendance at church, prayer, and probably fasting. In
contrast, they considered the harvest festival to be a leisure activity --
perhaps as much as three days devoted to feasting and games."
For over a
century and a half following the Pilgrim's first Thanksgiving, harvest
festivals, feasts, and days of thanksgiving were held sporadically throughout
the individual plantations and colonies.
It wasn't until
1777 that the first "National Day of Thanksgiving" was declared by
the Continental Congress in an attempt to bring together the regional
thanksgiving celebrations being held on different days, and to help unify the
colonies in giving thanks for a successful separation from England.
Washington's proclamation of 1789, nationwide days of thanksgiving weren't
observed regularly until 1863 when Abraham Lincoln, at the urging of Sarah
Josepha Hale, editor of "Godey's" magazine (and author of "Mary
Had A Little Lamb"), proclaimed that we "set apart and observe the last
Thursday of November as a Day of Thanksgiving" to be celebrated "with
one heart and one voice by the whole American people."
Setting the Standard
Lincoln, most presidents continued the tradition of proclaiming the last
Thursday in November as a Day of Thanksgiving, except for three.
set Thanksgiving Day for the first Thursday in December 1865. Ulysses Grant
made it the third Thursday in November in 1869. Then in 1939, FDR, pressured by
merchant lobbyists, made it the "next-to-last" Thursday so the
merchants would have more time to promote their Christmas sales.
American people were outraged by the change in tradition from the last
Thursday. So in 1941, in an attempt to placate the traditionalists and the
merchants and reach some sort of compromise, Congress finally standardized the
holiday by adopting a joint resolution declaring the fourth Thursday in
November as Thanksgiving Day.
As a result, in
some years Thanksgiving falls on the last Thursday of the month, while on other
years it is the next-to-last Thursday of the month.
Why We Celebrate
But whenever it
falls, Thanksgiving Day is a special day for Americans, for it is a uniquely
American holiday that is deeply rooted in our spirit, our history, our customs
and traditions. It is a time when we focus our attention on our families and
our country, on the freedoms we enjoy and the blessings we've received.
It is a time to
reflect on the things we are grateful for such as the products of our farmers,
scientists, artists, scholars, physicians, mechanics, musicians, public
servants, and people in all professions and walks of life who help us enjoy the
life we live.
And it is a
special time to give thanks for our friends and neighbors, families and loved
ones, and as Abraham Lincoln said, "to the source from which all blessings
custom reveals our character as a nation so clearly as our celebration of