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We might all know the story of the first Thanksgiving celebration, but the path to it becoming the national event we enjoy today took a cornucopia of decisions that spanned centuries as well as presidencies.
The OG (Original Gathering):
Thanksgiving originated as a three-day feast celebrating the fall harvest in November 1621 between Plymouth settlers and the Wampanoag Indians.1 Colonists continued the tradition in subsequent years with an autumn feast.
George Washington issued a proclamation declaring a day of “thanksgiving and prayer” in 1789, his first year in office.2 Despite the proclamation and wide adoption among early Americans, Thanksgiving was not yet an official federal holiday.
And a Second Helping of Presidential Proclamation:
In the midst of the Civil War, and at the urging of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” author Sara Josepha Hale, President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving an official holiday,3 with the first to be so recognized on Thursday, November 26, 1863.
Is It Thanksgiving Already?
To boost holiday shopping sales, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving up one week in 1939,4 breaking the tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November. It wasn’t without controversy, and two years later, FDR signed into law a congressional resolution declaring the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day.5
1 Roos, D. (November 2018). Thanksgiving History Facts and Trivia. History.com https://www.history.com/news/thanksgivinghistory-trivia-facts
2 Washington, G. (October 1789). Thanksgiving Proclamation. Founders Online, National Archives.
https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0091 . [Original source: The Papers of George Washington,
Presidential Series, vol. 4, 8 September 1789 – 15 January 1790, ed. Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia,
1993, pp. 131–132.]
3 Abraham Lincoln Online. http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/thanks.htm
4 Rothman, L. (November 2014). FDR Moved Thanksgiving to Give People More Time to Shop. Time.
5 The Center for Legislative Archives, National Archives. https://www.archives.gov/legislative/features/thanksgiving