Day of thanks develops into national holiday over 240 years

Michael Bushnell
Northeast News

What we celebrate as Thanksgiving is traditionally tied to a three-day feast involving the Pilgrims after their first harvest in 1621.

After the long winter that claimed many lives that first year at Plymouth Colony, the settlers put together a fall celebration to give thanks for the bountiful harvest and for surviving the harsh New England winter.

The colonists ate with the Wampanoag Indians and the menu included wild fowl, venison, seafood, squash, and corn.

The Pilgrims celebrated a day of giving thanks again in 1623.

After that, a tradition began in Plymouth and other New England colonies of setting aside a day to give thanks for the autumn harvest.

Although this tradition did not take place every year, it persisted throughout the rest of the 17th century and became the foundation of a maturing colonial landscape.

During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress appointed one or more days of giving thanks each year except for 1777.

In that year, General George Washington declared the holiday to be in December as a victory celebration for the defeat of the British at Saratoga.

Washington later issued proclamations of the Thanksgiving holiday in 1789 and 1795, this time as the President of the newly-formed United States of America.

However, it was not until another war that Thanksgiving Day was officially proclaimed a national holiday.

Influenced by a seemingly unending stream of letters from Sarah Josepha Hale, Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation in October 1863 officially recognizing the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day.

Hale’s campaign to have Thanksgiving observed as a national holiday lasted more than 40 years and consisted of tireless lobbying efforts of her elected representatives and literally thousands of letters sent to presidents dating back to Andrew Jackson.

Later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, under mounting pressure from the business community, re-designated the holiday to be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November.

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