Last week I wrote about the events leading up to the first Thanksgiving formally observed in America. This week I want to concentrate on Thanksgiving in America and the United States since that first Thanksgiving observance.
But first, let's review where we ended last week. In December 1620, following an absolutely horrific voyage to America, the 102 the passengers aboard the Mayflower began coming ashore at what we now call Plymouth Rock, on the western shore of Cape Cod Bay in Massachusetts. The first months were a devastating winter of death and near starvation that left only forty-four of the original 102 settlers alive--twenty-four men and a mixture of twenty women and children. Nevertheless, with help of American Indians who befriended them, the colonists built more permanent places of shelter and planted their first batch of crops in American soil. Following a summer and fall of ideal weather, they harvested an ample crop. In spite of the terrible suffering they had undergone during the last year, the early Pilgrims set aside three days to celebrate and give thanks to Almighty God for their blessings, and they were joined by about ninety Indians of the local Wampanoag tribe.
For the next 242 years, there were spasmodic thanksgiving celebrations, the majority of them on a local level in various colonies, cities, and states, but no ongoing and consistent celebrations of a national day of thanksgiving. For example, in 1631 Boston celebrated a day of thanksgiving in gratitude for a ship of provisions having safely reached its harbor. There were celebrations of thanksgiving here and there in gratitude for specific events, such as triumph over hostile Indians, abundant harvests, ending of droughts, and victories in battle.
The Continental Congress declared national days of thanksgiving for the thirteen colonies during years 1777 - 1784, but there were no national days of thanksgiving observed the next four years, 1785 - 1788. George Washington, soon after taking office as the first President of the United States under the new Constitution of 1787, on October 3, 1789, proclaimed Thursday, November 26, 1789, to be "a day of public thanksgiving and prayer," to give thanks especially for the opportunity of forming a new nation and the successful establishment of a new constitution. President Washington, six years later, declared another national day of thanksgiving to be observed on Thursday, February 19, 1795, this time for the primary purpose of giving thanks to Almighty God for peace and the well-being of the people of the United States.
But even after Washington's second thanksgiving proclamation in 1795, Thanksgiving was not yet established as an annual national observance. Different states, primarily New England and northern states, celebrated thanksgiving at different times for different reasons. Virginia, in 1857, was the first southern state to declare a state-wide celebration of thanksgiving, and eight more southern states joined the next year.
The landmark Thanksgiving proclamation that set the precedent for America's national day of Thanksgiving was President Abraham Lincoln's proclamation issued on October 3, 1863, seventy-four years to the day after President George Washington proclaimed a national day of Thanksgiving for the last Thursday of November 1789. Lincoln, following Washington's lead, proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving for the last Thursday of November 1863. In his proclamation, Lincoln called attention to the wide variety of blessings of the year "that is drawing towards its close."
All succeeding presidents honored the tradition and annually issued their own Thanksgiving Proclamation, declaring the last Thursday in November as a nation day of Thanksgiving, until 1939. That year, the last Thursday of November was November 30. Retailers complained to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that this left only twenty-four shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and FDR pushed Thanksgiving back a week--to the next-to-last Thursday in November. This created a lot of controversy: school vacations, local and national parades, family trips and get-togethers, and football games had to be rescheduled. As it turned out, twenty-three states agreed to change the date for Thanksgiving; twenty-three others kept the traditional date for Thanksgiving; and two states, Colorado and Texas, honored both dates.
Again, in 1940, FDR announced the date of Thanksgiving Day as the next-to-last Thursday of November, and this time thirty-one states followed FDR's earlier date, and the other seventeen states stuck with the traditional last Thursday of November.
But all controversy ended in 1941, when FDR returned Thanksgiving to the last Thursday of November, and the United States Congress passed a law declaring that Thanksgiving would occur every year from thenceforth on the last Thursday of each November. And every year since then Thanksgiving has been celebrated on the last Thursday of November throughout the United States.
May you have a very happy and meaningful Thanksgiving Day, as together--as individuals and as a country--we pause from the hustle and bustle of life to celebrate our reasons for being thankful.