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Thanksgiving: Surprising Origins and Fascinating History

A lifelong lover of history, I enjoy writing articles about the past and interesting political topics, especially when the two intersect.

The Pilgrims were not the first to celebrate Thanksgiving in America.

The Pilgrims were not the first to celebrate Thanksgiving 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.

Spanish Admiral Pedro Menendez de Aviles, founder of St. Augustine, FL

Spanish Admiral Pedro Menendez de Aviles, founder of St. Augustine, FL

1565: Thanksgiving in St. Augustine, FL

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 to give 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.

1619: Thanksgiving at Berkeley Plantation, VA

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. 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.

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"The First Thanksgiving," painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863-1930)

"The First Thanksgiving," painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863-1930)

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, portrait by Gilbert Stewart

George Washington, portrait by Gilbert Stewart

George Washington: First Thanksgiving Proclamation

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.

Abraham Lincoln: Proclamation of 1862

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.

From 1863 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.

The Holiday Evolved Over Time

By the end of the 19th 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 20th century that retailers first began putting up Christmas displays and began promoting Christmas shopping before Thanksgiving.

The beginning of the 20th 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 20th 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 D. Roosevelt

President Franklin D. Roosevelt

President Franklin Roosevelt Breaks Tradition

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 30 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 that had already printed calendars for the next year with Thanksgiving as the last Thursday in November, as well as colleges that had scheduled football games for November 30.

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 30 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 be 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 28, 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 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 breach than in practice as retailers are increasingly beginning to slowly display decorations and promote Christmas buying beginning sometime 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 that 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


Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on December 01, 2014:

Rachael L Alba - thank you for your comment and I am glad you enjoyed the Hub. I think that knowing the history of holidays helps us to understand and appreciate them more.

Rachel L Alba from Every Day Cooking and Baking on November 27, 2014:

I enjoyed reading your hub about why Pres. George Washington issued a Thanksgivng Day in the first place. It bothers me to hear it called "turkey day" or "football day". Black Friday is almost as popular and with all the stores starting to open of Thanksgiving Day, people are forgetting why we celebrate. Everyone should read your hub, it was informative and important and enjoyable. Thank you.

Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on January 24, 2012:

charlie - thanks for catching my error. Next time I will double check dates on a calendar

charlie on January 06, 2012:

Except that FDR did not proclaim Nov. 21, 1939, as Thanksgiving because that was a Tuesday. He moved it up a week from Nov. 30, 1939- so Thanksgiving was on the 23rd of Nov. in 1939. Fact checking/proofreading is so easy- why do writers avoid performing these tasks after they have written something?

Danette Watt on November 23, 2010:

I enjoyed your hub - interesting and thorough

Jason Matthews from North Carolina on November 21, 2010:

Very informative!

DeeBee3 from United Kingdom on November 27, 2009:

As a Brit obviously I've heard of this holiday but always wondered what it was all about. Thanks for enlightening me Chuck.

Regards Dee.

James A Watkins from Chicago on November 24, 2009:

I enjoyed reading your well researched, beautifully written article. Thanks for the history lesson. History is my favorite subject.

Papa Sez from The Philippines to Canada on November 22, 2009:

Chuck, I published my very first hub and linked to this hub as a reference to know more about the history of Thanksgiving Day in America.

You might want to take a peek. I'd love to know what you think. Thanks.

Papa Sez from The Philippines to Canada on November 19, 2009:

This is a great resource for those who'd like to learn about the history of Thanksgiving celebration. Kudos!

Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on October 12, 2009:

bobmnu - thanks for the comment.

I knew about FDR changing the date of Thanksgiving and knew that it was not popular with some people at the time. However, it wasn't until I started researching this that I discovered the extent of opposition. It was a classic case of a politician using the power of the government to satisfy a powerful and vocal special interest group at the expense of the rest of the nation.

I also found it interesting that the people were able to pressure a Democratic Congress into forcing the President to bend to their will. They did the same thing following the death of FDR by pushing forward through their state legislators a call for a Constitutional Convention to pass a Constitutional Amendment preventing any future president from running for and serving more than two terms. This action scared Congress into enacting, within 2 years of FDR's death the 22nd Amendment which did just that. The Tea Party Movement can take heart from these two revolts against FDR. After all, if the people could force a president as powerful as FDR to back down they can certainly do it with the present crowd in Washington (see my Hub on the Tea Party Movement )

Thanks again.


bobmnu from Cumberland on October 12, 2009:

Chuck - very intereting Hub. An interesting point that people forced the president to change. How long will it take politicians to learn that once angered people will react and force them to change.

artrush73 on October 12, 2009:

Great hub and very interesting read, thanks for a great hub :)

lurchthing on October 11, 2009:

very nicely done learned a lot thanks

Joilene Rasmussen from United States on October 11, 2009:

Chuck, I always learn so much from your hubs. Thanks for your detailed presentation.

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