​Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanks-giving!​

" ​​Once again the season of the year has come when, in accordance with the custom of our forefathers for generations past, the president appoints a day as the special occasion for all our people to give praise and thanksgiving to God.

TR, ​Proclamation 776—Thanksgiving Day, 1907 (made October 26, 1907).


"​​the custom grew of setting apart one day in each year"

In 1863, Lincoln declared a national day of thanksgiving to be on the 4th Thursday in November. But Thanksgiving, as we know it, is somewhat on the young side.  

Days of giving thanks on the North American continent date back to the 17th century, by the Spanish and the French. The American day of Thanksgiving traces back to a celebration in the Plymouth colony in 1621, following harvest time.

The Continental Congress proclaimed days of thanksgiving, fasting, humiliation, and prayer throughout the Revolutionary War – but they ranged from April to December.

George Washington made the first Presidential proclamation of a day of thanksgiving in 1789 – and it was to be on the last Thursday in November.

"Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor-- and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness."

George Washington: Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789.

But it was a one-off, not to become an official national holiday. And Washington’s second Thanksgiving proclamation chose February 19 for its observation.

John Adams made two declarations of thanksgiving – or rather, as he phrased it, “Recommending a National Day of Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer.” These recommendations, like Washington’s , were calls of a religious nature for penitence and gratitude. Adams’ first proclamation didn’t get to the “giving thanks” part until the end:

"​And finally, I recommend that on the said day the duties of humiliation and prayer be accompanied by fervent thanksgiving to the Bestower of Every Good Gift, not only for His having hitherto protected and preserved the people of these United States in the independent enjoyment of their religious and civil freedom, but also for having prospered them in a wonderful progress of population, and for conferring on them many and great favors conducive to the happiness and prosperity of a nation."

John Adams: A Proclamation, March 23, 1798

Both of ​Adams' proclamations were for spring days.

A regularly-scheduled Thanksgiving didn’t start until 1863, after magazine editor Sarah Hale had been campaigning in her Lady’s Book magazine for seventeen years for just such a day. When Abraham Lincoln declared a Thanksgiving day, it was only for the District of Columbia, but Union governors quickly followed suit for Thanksgiving proclamations in their states.

From that point onward, Presidents typically declared the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving. Then in 1939, Theodore Roosevelt’s cousin Franklin made a change, I kid you not, on behalf of the National Retail Dry Goods Association. FDR moved Thanksgiving to the 3rd November Thursday to create a longer Christmas shopping season. Like Lincoln, this proclamation applied only to the D.C. area and federal employees. And governors split down the middle – 23 states celebrating Thanksgiving on November 23rd, 23 celebrating November 30th. (Texas and Colorado just decided to celebrate ‘em both.)

After two years of this confusion, FDR signed legislation that finally positioned Thanksgiving throughout the United States on the 4th Thursday in November.

Many other Thanksgiving traditions could get their own pages, but for now here’s a few highlights:

  • First Thanksgiving Day collegiate football game: 1876
  • First Thanksgiving Parade: 1920 by Gimbel Brothers Department Store (Macy’s first was 1924)
  • First pardoning of a Thanksgiving turkey: 1947 by Harry S. Truman

Whatever your traditions, I wish you a happy Thanksgiving, and hope you find places, situations, and especially people, for which you are grateful.

About the Author

The "founding father" of Historic Experience. Peyton is an actor-historian with over 15 years experience as a John Adams and Theodore Roosevelt interpreter, impersonator, speaker, or whatever descriptor speaks to you. Peyton Dixon is based in central New Jersey and travels across the country bringing American history to life.