Thanksgiving Tradition

Thanksgiving: our nation's oldest tradition
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 happiness."
     But this was not the first American Thanksgiving.

First Thanksgiving
     Some historians have assigned this distinction to the colonists of Cape Henry, VA, who on April 29, 1607, supposedly celebrated a thanksgiving.
     Other 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.
     However, 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 freedom.
     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 thanksgiving.
      But if 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.
     According to 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.
     After 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
     Following Lincoln, most presidents continued the tradition of proclaiming the last Thursday in November as a Day of Thanksgiving, except for three.
     Andrew Johnson 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.
     However, the 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 come."
     Perhaps no custom reveals our character as a nation so clearly as our celebration of Thanksgiving Day.