The tradition of Thanksgiving as a time to focus on God and thank Him for His blessings dates back almost four centuries in America. Colonists held Thanksgiving services in Texas in 1541, in Florida in 1565, and in Virginia in 1607 and 1619, but it is from the Pilgrims that we derive the current tradition of a Thanksgiving that includes prayers to God, a meal with friends, and a time of athletic competition.
The Pilgrims arrived in America in December 1620 and experienced a harsh winter of extreme hunger and starvation in which half of them died. The following summer, the Pilgrims reaped a bountiful harvest. As Pilgrim Edward Winslow (who later became their governor) affirmed, "God be praised, we had a good increase of corn. . . . [and] by the goodness of God, we are far from want."
The grateful Pilgrims therefore declared a three-day feast in December 1621 to thank God and to celebrate with their friends. Ninety Wampanoag Indians joined the fifty Pilgrims for three days of food (which included shellfish, lobsters, turkey, corn bread, berries, deer, and other foods), of athletic games (the young Pilgrim and Wampanoag men engaged in races, wrestling matches, and other athletic events), and of prayer. This celebration – America's first Thanksgiving Festival – was the origin of the holiday that Americans now celebrate each November.
The first national Thanksgiving was proclaimed in 1789 by President George Washington, but after Washington, national Thanksgiving proclamations were sporadic; most official Thanksgiving observances occurred at the state level. In fact, by 1815, state governments had issued no less than 1,400 official prayer proclamations, almost half of which were for days of thanksgiving and prayer.
In the first half of the nineteenth century, Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godey's Lady's Book (a popular lady's books containing poetry, art work, and articles by America's leading authors) began to lobby for a national Day of Thanksgiving. For nearly three decades, she contacted president after president until Abraham Lincoln responded in 1863 by setting aside the last Thursday of that November. Over the next seventy-five years, presidents faithfully followed Lincoln's precedent, annually declaring a national Thanksgiving Day, but the date of the celebrations varied widely from proclamation to proclamation.
In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt celebrated Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November and maintained that date year by year throughout his presidency. In 1941, Congress permanently established the fourth Thursday in November as the national Thanksgiving holiday.
As you celebrate Thanksgiving this year, there are several ways in which you can enhance the celebration of America's oldest holiday:
Review the full HISTORY OF THANKSGIVING and share that history with others. View ORIGINAL THANKSGIVING PROCLAMATIONS.
We have posted a number of famous Thanksgiving Proclamations, including the first national Thanksgiving Proclamation by President George Washington in 1789, the 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln that started the modern Thanksgiving tradition, the 1933 Thanksgiving Proclamation of President Roosevelt that established the tradition, and a number of Thanksgiving Proclamations by Founding Fathers who signed the Declaration or Constitution.
Read a famous THANKSGIVING SERMON – the notable sermon preached by the Rev. Thomas Baldwin of Boston in response to President George Washington's 1795 Thanksgiving Proclamation. Have a blessed and God-filled Thanksgiving!