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Wednesday, November 24, 2021

The Path to a Thanksgiving Holiday


Saratoga Surrender (Library of Congress)

     We all have been taught the story of Thanksgiving, how the pilgrims were helped by the native Americans to survive and celebrated with a big feast. Well, maybe. Many myths and much controversy surround the “first Thanksgiving,” but the march of Thanksgiving toward its status as a U.S. national holiday is well documented. Although individual colonies had various earlier observances, the first time all thirteen colonies celebrated a day of thanksgiving on the same date was December 18, 1777. George Washington, in his role as Commander-in-Chief, called for a day of “Solemn Thanksgiving and Praise” to celebrate the Continental Army’s victory over the British in the Battle of Saratoga on October 17th.

The proclamation was printed in newspapers, including the October 9, 1789 issue of the Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser (via

     The first Federal Congress passed a resolution asking the President to recommend to the nation a day of thanksgiving. Not long after, President Washington proclaimed Thursday, November 26, 1789 a
 "day of publick thanksgiving and prayer" to express gratitude for both the successful end to the war for independence and the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Washington attended church and donated money and food to prisoners and debtors in observance of the holiday. Subsequently, Presidents John Adams and James Madison designated days of thanks.

Sarah Hale pictured in Godeys (via Wikimedia Commons)

     During the first half of the 19th century, several states officially adopted an annual Thanksgiving holiday, although each designated a different day. Additionally, Sarah Josepha Hale, best known for authoring “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” began a 36-year campaign to get Thanksgiving designated a national holiday. She was later nicknamed the “Mother of Thanksgiving.”

President Abraham Lincoln s Thanksgiving Day Proclamation of October 3, 1863, Page 3 (National Archives)

     In 1863, Hale implored both President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward to officially designate Thanksgiving as a permanent national holiday. Despite the United States being torn apart by the bloody Civil War, Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday of November to be Thanksgiving Day in words written by Seward. “I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States… to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”

President Franklin D. Roosevelt Carving the Thanksgiving Turkey (National Archives) 

     Thanksgiving was celebrated on the last Thursday in November every year until 1939. In that year, Thanksgiving was set to fall on November 30, leaving only 24 shopping days until Christmas. President Franklin Roosevelt feared the short Christmas season would negatively impact the economy. He signed an executive order that moved the holiday a week earlier to November 23 in an attempt to aid retail sales. This met with fiery opposition, with critics calling it “Franksgiving.”

Senate Amendments to H.J. Res. 41, Making the Fourth Thursday in November a Legal Holiday, December 9, 1941

     After much effort to return the holiday to its traditional date, in 1941, Congress officially moved the holiday to its current place. President Roosevelt reluctantly signed the bill making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November.

Happy Thanksgiving!

  Ann Markim




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  1. Happy ThanksGiving, Ann and Everyone!
    Fascinating article - espec about Mary Hale.
    Thanks for sharing

  2. Happy Thanksgiving! I'm almost glad we don't do this holiday, as a Scottish person. It's so close to Christmas, and then we treat New Year as a three day holiday too. I'm not sure I have the constitution for a third one.

    1. For many years, Thanksgiving was the kick-off to the U.S. Christmas season, with the day after being a huge shopping day. Now Christmas products appear en masse in in stores right after Halloween. But Thanksgiving is still a nice time to get together with friends and family.

  3. Thank you for the history of the American Thanksgiving. We may as well have these festive activities and feasting during these cold months just to keep our spirits up: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's, and Valentine's Day. This is how we manage to get through until Spring comes back. Lots of fun and food.
    I wish you a wonderful Thanksgiving, Ann.

    1. Thank you, Sarah. And Happy Thanksgiving to you.

  4. We celebrate Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October in Canada. It caught me unaware this year like a week earlier than I'm used to, simply because of October beginning on a Friday. I should research why we celebrate a month earlier than the U.S. And kudos to Mary Hale for making this holiday happen. I agree with Sarah's comment about all these holidays during the cold winter months. While I was still working I really appreciated them (and still do). With Christmas Day falling on a Saturday this year, it'll make a lovely four-day holiday for people who need extra time for travelling. An excellent and important article, Mary. Love your research. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving celebration.

  5. Thank you, Elizabeth. Your comment made me curious about what sparked Canada's initial celebration. I found this: "In 1838, Lower Canada used Thanksgiving to celebrate the end of the Lower Canada Rebellion." Interesting that initial observances in both countries were related to military battles.