Thanksgiving Through the Years in America
The Roots of Giving Thanks and Celebrating are Ancient
The practice of setting aside a day of Thanksgiving is an age-old one that had been practiced throughout the world since ancient times. The basic idea behind a Thanksgiving holiday is that people gather together as a community and give thanks for the blessings bestowed upon the community by the Almighty.
While prayer and worship have historically been a part of such observances, communal celebration and fun have also traditionally been a major focus of these observances. The people of the community have worked hard and have been successful so the day is a time to both give thanks for the blessings received and celebrate the blessings received for their efforts.
Thanksgiving celebrations, more often than not, have been celebrated in the autumn following a good harvest. In agricultural societies, not only people's livelihoods, but often their lives depended upon a good harvest. And a bountiful harvest meant economic security for the coming year, as they would have the food needed to sustain life.
A First Thanksgiving in St. Augustine, Florida in 1565
Not all thanksgiving celebrations are harvest festivals. The first recorded Thanksgiving celebration in the United States occurred in St. Augustine, Florida on September 8, 1565.
This was the date that the Spanish Admiral Pedro Menendez de Aviles and his party dropped anchor off the Florida coast and came ashore to start a colony.
The first official act of de Aviles was to claim the land for Spain in the name of King Philip II. His next act was to gather the 500 to 700 men, women and children that had accompanied him on this expedition to establish a colony in Florida and celebrate a Mass giving thanks for a successful voyage and landing.
They then had a meal, to which the invited the Indians, who were present when they arrived, to celebrate their successful journey.
It should be noted that the Thanksgiving observance in St. Augustine, Florida in 1565 was the first recorded and probably the first European Thanksgiving celebration in what is now the United States.
However, the Native Americans who had settled the Western Hemisphere thousands of years before the Europeans arrived had been celebrating, as other groups around the world had been, good harvests and other successful events by giving thanks and celebrating usually with food being the center piece of the celebratory part of the event.
A First Thanksgiving at Berkeley Plantation in Virginia
A similar event took place on December 4, 1619 when Captain John Woodlief and a group of 37 settlers landed at what became Berkeley Plantation in Virginia after a difficult voyage from England.
Like the earlier Jamestown Colony this group was backed by investors in England who had financed the expedition in the hopes of making money off the colonial venture.
However, these investors were men of faith as well as worldly businessmen and their written orders given to Captain Woodlief when he departed were that, upon a successful landing, they were to immediately drop to their knees and give thanks to God.
There is no record of a feast, but following their prayers they more than likely took the occasion to relax and enjoy their first meal on dry land in weeks.
The Pilgrims and Colonial Times
Of course everyone knows about the Pilgrims first Thanksgiving in which Governor William Bradford issued a proclamation instructing everyone in the community to gather together to give thanks on Thursday November 29, 1623 for the colony's first successful harvest.
Unlike the St. Augustine and Berkeley Plantation Thanksgiving celebrations, the celebration in the Plymouth Colony was a harvest festival in which the colonists gave thanks for a bountiful harvest.
Thanksgiving remained a varying local affair in the United States throughout the colonial period. During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress called for a national day of Thanksgiving following the Continental Army's big victory at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777.
George Washington Issues First Thanksgiving Proclamation by the American Government
On October 3, 1789, a little over a year after the Constitution had been approved by the states and five months after he had been sworn in as the first President under the Constitution, George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving Proclamation by the new government. The first paragraph of the Proclamation describes the things Americans had to be thankful for saying:
"WHEREAS it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favour; and Whereas both Houfes of Congress have, by their joint committee, requefted me "to recommend to the people of the United States a DAY OF PUBLICK THANSGIVING and PRAYER, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to eftablifh a form of government for their safety and happiness:"
It is interesting to note that Congress had passed the resolution requesting that President Washington
"recommend to the people of the United States a DAY OF PUBLICK THANSGIVING and PRAYER, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God,"
almost immediately after they had passed the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment of which included the phrase "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion," and sent it to the President to forward to the states for ratification.
President Washington, in turn, after directing his Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, to prepare the necessary instructions and forward the Bill of Rights to the states, proceeded, on October 3, 1789 to respond to the Thanksgiving request by Congress by issuing his Proclamation.
President George Washington proclaimed one more National Day of Thanksgiving during his term of office and most of his successors followed suit by issuing one or more Thanksgiving proclamations during their terms of office. The dates varied and no President issued the proclamations annually until after President Lincoln issued his first Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1862 at the height of the Civil War and followed with a second one in 1863.
Since Lincoln's 1862 Proclamation, The Tradition has Been for Presidents to Issue a Thanksgiving Proclamation Every Year
However, the various states and local governments frequently issued Thanksgiving Proclamations so there were official thanksgiving celebrations observed in one or more places in the U.S.each year, between George Washington's second proclamation in 1795 and Lincoln's 1862 proclamation even when the President did not proclaim a national observance.
From1863 onward every President issued an annual proclamation calling for the people of the nation to celebrate a national day of thanksgiving. And, while not necessarily observed by everyone, the holiday gradually became a holiday that was celebrated nationally on the same day each year.
The same day being the day proclaimed by the President that year and, since the choice of date was up to the President, the day initially tended to vary from year to year.
Despite the changing date of Thanksgiving from year to year, the tendency was to place it in the Autumn more often than not and and the dates most frequently chosen fell in November or early December.
Over time Thursday became the day of choice and the date tended to be the second last Thursday in November, the last Thursday in November or the first Thursday in December.
Changes in Technology and the Economy Caused Holiday Customs to Change
By the end of the nineteenth century, improvements in transportation and communication had begun to unite the country commercially.
This, plus rising incomes and a rising middle class resulted in Christmas becoming a more secular and commercial holiday rather than solely a religious holiday. Christmas gift giving increased as did retailers efforts to promote gift giving.
Being close to Christmas, Thanksgiving began to be viewed as the start of the commercial Christmas season as retailers began promoting Christmas on the day after Thanksgiving. The Friday after Thanksgiving became the unofficial start of the Christmas shopping season.
In fact the Friday after Thanksgiving became so closely associated with the start of the Christmas shopping season that both retailers and consumers adhered to the custom as if it were law and it wasn't until the second half of the twentieth century that retailers first began putting up Christmas displays and began promoting Christmas shopping before Thanksgiving.
The beginning of the twentieth century also saw the emergence of college and professional football which became a popular autumn team sport. Being a holiday on which most people had the day off from work and occurring in the Fall, Thanksgiving soon became a popular day for football games.
As the twentieth century got underway football started becoming as much a part of Thanksgiving as turkey as people first began attending football games on Thanksgiving and, with the advent of radio and later television, sitting at home listening to or watching games after dinner.
The need to plan and schedule football games, decorating of stores, the start of shopping promotions and the scheduling of Thanksgiving Day parades such as the famous Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade that began in 1926, forced Presidents to settle on a fixed date every year and that soon became the last Thursday in November.
President Franklin Roosevelt
President Franklin Roosevelt Breaks Tradition and the People React
Things were fine until 1939 and President Franklin D. Roosevelt's attempts to manage the economy during the Great Depression.
With the Great Depression having lasted for almost a decade and many people falling prey to the Keynesian idea that consumer spending was one of the keys to ending the Depression, a number of large retailers were concerned that, with Thanksgiving falling on November 30th that year, thereby pushing the start of the Christmas shopping season into December, that sales would be hurt.
So the leaders of many of the larger stores in the National Retail Dry Goods Association (NRDGA) petitioned President Roosevelt to move Thanksgiving back a week to Thursday November 23, 1939.
Roosevelt complied with their request but immediately ran into opposition from many small businesses and other businesses, like calendar companies which had already printed calendars for the next year with Thanksgiving as the last Thursday in November, as well as colleges who had scheduled football games for November 30th.
So many ordinary citizens were upset as well, that the nation became split over when to celebrate Thanksgiving. Opposition was so great that many governors and mayors attempted to override the President by issuing their own proclamations declaring November 30th as the date for Thanksgiving in their state.
In 1940, November had the usual four Thursdays but President Roosevelt again moved Thanksgiving back a week in an attempt to extend the Christmas shopping season. However, following this act of moving the date a second year in a row, public opposition rose to such a point that President Roosevelt was forced to back down and compromise despite the fact that he had Democratic majorities in both Houses of Congress.
The following year, 1941, Congress passed a bill, which President Roosevelt signed into law, making Thanksgiving a Federal holiday and setting the date as the fourth Thursday in November. This compromise meant that Thanksgiving would generally by the last Thursday in November as, like most months, each day generally occurs only four times in the month.
When the fourth Thursday is the last Thursday there is usually about a half a week left in the month (in 1940 it fell on Nov 28th leaving less than four weeks to shop before Christmas). On the few occasions when November has five Thursdays, celebrating Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday results in four weeks of shopping before Christmas.
The Date of Thanksgiving is Now Fixed While the Start of the Christmas Shopping Season Gradually Becomes Longer on its Own
While the law still requires the President to issue an official proclamation calling upon the people of the United States to observe and celebrate a day of Thanksgiving, the same law also requires him to proclaim the fourth Thursday in November as the day for the nation to observe Thanksgiving.
As to Christmas shopping, the Friday after Thanksgiving is still a traditional day of shopping frenzy and continues to be known as Black Friday as it is the day the accounting books of many retailers move into the black and show a profit (although the Monday after Thanksgiving is competing for this title as, since many employers now close for both Thursday and Friday thereby giving their employees a 4 day Thanksgiving weekend, the first thing numerous employees do upon returning to work on Monday is to log on to the company computer at their desks and begin their Christmas shopping online).
And, as far as being the start of the Christmas shopping season, retailers observe this more in the breech than in practice as retailers are increasingly beginning to slowly display decorations and promote Christmas buying beginning some time after Labor Day in September and are in full swing for Christmas by the day after Halloween. And Halloween is still a people's holiday which does not involve having the President, Governors or Mayors issue proclamations calling on us to observe it or laws stating when it is to be observed.
© 2009 Chuck Nugent