A look at the surprisingly tumultuous history of the Thanksgiving holiday

(Johnny/Flickr Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0)
(Johnny/Flickr Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0)

(MEDIA GENERAL) – There’s more to the history of Thanksgiving than the hand-traced turkeys and makeshift pilgrim hats we all made in the second grade. It’s a holiday with a surprisingly tumultuous history that wasn’t universally celebrated nationwide until deep into the 20th century.

The first Thanksgiving

Following a rough, deadly winter aboard the Mayflower off the Plymouth coast, the Mayflower passengers who survived the journey (roughly half) moved ashore in March 1621. They met a member of the Abenaki tribe who introduced them to Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe who learned English after being kidnapped by an English sea captain and sold into slavery. Squanto helped the settlers learn how to live on the new land by teaching them how to grow corn and avoid poisonous plants.

After the pilgrims’ first harvest was successful, Governor William Bradford invited a group of their Native American allies for a three-day feast. The feast became an annual tradition in the colonies.

Thanksgiving, moving forward

A photograph of President Abraham Lincoln circa 1863 (Public Domain)
A photograph of President Abraham Lincoln circa 1863 (Public Domain)

In 1789, George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation by the United States government, calling for Americans to express their gratitude for their freedom from British reign and to reflect in days of prayer. Similar proclamations were given regularly in following years by Washington and his successor, John Adams. Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams, however, did not issue proclamations over perceived conflicts with the constitutional separation of church and state.

In the 19th century, several states declared Thanksgiving a holiday, but there was no standard date. On Oct. 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a decree to establish a national holiday to celebrate the thanksgiving tradition as Thanksgiving Day. The decree established the holiday on the final Thursday in November.

Still in the throes of the Civil War, many southern states did not observe the new holiday, believing it to be an abolitionist holiday for Yankees. Even in the years after the war, news reports from cities in the south note the holiday is only celebrated by “portions of the community.” By 1890, the Charlotte News penned an article that observed locally that “with each succeeding year, the observance of this day has grown more general until now it is second, as a holiday, only to Christmas.”

Changing days

For decades, Americans celebrated Thanksgiving on the final Thursday in November. In 1933, Thanksgiving fell on Nov. 30, a year in the cycle which there were five Thursdays in November. With less than four weeks of official “Christmas season,” worried business leaders lobbied President Franklin D. Roosevelt to amend the holiday to lengthen the shopping season and further help an economy recovering from The Great Depression. Roosevelt said no, but when the issue came up again in 1939, he agreed to move the holiday to the fourth Thursday in November.

The decision was met with a mixed reaction. According to NPR, a few states decided to oppose the president and hold Thanksgiving Day on the final Thursday of the month. In 1941, Congress passed a federal law to mark Thanksgiving Day as the fourth Thursday of November.

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