"It is therefore recommended to set apart Thursday the 18th day of December next, for solemn thanksgiving and praise... acknowledging with gratitude their obligations to Him for benefits received."
- U.S. Continental Congress, 1777
Although there is some evidence of an event called "Thanksgiving" taking place in the Jamestown, Va., settlement in 1607, it is generally acknowledged that the origin of our current holiday was the three-day festival celebrated in Plymouth, Mass., in early November, 1621.
The Mayflower Pilgrims had been in the new world a few days shy of a year, but there was little to celebrate until then. They had suffered a terrible toll from starvation, sickness, and a storm that blew their craft far afield of the Virginia coast where they expected to land. Only 52 of the original 102 passengers had survived the harsh winter. But with help from Native Americans, the 1621 harvest had been abundant. Now it was time for a feast.
It always amazes me what a little historical review will do. Besides destroying a number of myths and assumptions, I learned a lot. I learned why Thanksgiving is always celebrated on Thursday: That was the day the Puritans held their mid-week prayer service.
Perhaps you, too, have been under some wrong impressions about Thanksgiving, such as an unbroken line of the late November holiday from 1621 to the 21st century. Let's see what the books say.
Following the plentiful harvest of 1621, conditions on the ground plus an obligation to return half their crops to the investors funding their colony back in England, left barely enough food for themselves in 1622, and little cause for Thanksgiving. But the next year, after better crop planning and more favorable conditions, the grateful colonists celebrated again. This time the event wasn't called a "festival," but a "Thanksgiving to God," whom they credited for sending a good supply of late summer rain.
By the mid-17th century, annual autumn Thanksgivings were held throughout New England. Also, beginning in 1777, the various Continental Congresses proclaimed similar celebrations for material blessings as well as victories on the battlefield all during the Revolutionary War.
Five months after the inauguration of George Washington (April 30, 1789), and five days after completion of the Bill of Rights, Congress asked their new President to proclaim "a day of public thanksgiving and prayer... for the many and signal favours of Almighty God." Washington complied, declaring "Thursday, the 26th day of November next" as just such a day.
President John Adams continued the custom of proclaiming national days of thanks during his term, and James Madison called for three days of "fasting and grateful prayer" during the War of 1812. But catering to a rising secular voice in the nation, Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams refused to continue the practice during their administrations. Following Madison's presidency, there were no more national Thanksgiving proclamations until Abraham Lincoln declared Nov. 26, 1863 "A Day of Thanksgiving and Prayer for the Nation" during the Civil War.
For the next 75 years, every American president repeated a similar proclamation for the fourth Thursday of November until 1939, when Franklin Roosevelt moved the holiday back to the third Thursday - "to lengthen the growing Christmas consumer frenzy." Two years later, however, Congress again made the fourth Thursday of each November the nation's official, national Thanksgiving Day.
Thus, as sure as Thanksgiving falls on Thursday each year, American presidents have consistently acknowledged "the blessings of Almighty God" in their annual Thanksgiving Proclamation. And just as sure as the American people merge their day of gratitude and the not-so-modern three or four-day weekend festival of family, food and football, we shall have Thanksgiving - and turkey and "consumer frenzy," and leftover food and memories to last another year.
Barbara Seaborn is a local free-lance writer. E-mail comments to seabara at aol.com.
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