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A History of Thanksgiving Day

One of the first Thanksgiving observances in America was entirely religious and did not involve feasting. On December 4, 1619, 39 English settlers arrived at Berkeley Plantation, near present-day Charles City, Virginia. The group's charter required that the day of arrival be observed yearly as a day of thanksgiving to God.

The first New England Thanksgiving was celebrated less than a year after the Plymouth colonists had landed. After the first winter killed almost half of the colonists, hope was renewed when the corn harvest of 1621 came in well ahead of expectations. That autumn, Governor William Bradford decreed that a three-day feast of thanksgiving be held.

the first Thanksgiving (of 1621), as erroneously depicted by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris in 1899
the first Thanksgiving

During the Revolutionary War, eight special days of thanks were observed for victories and for being saved from dangers. In 1789 President George Washington issued a general proclamation naming November 26 a day of national thanksgiving. In the same year, the Protestant Episcopal Church announced that the first Thursday in November would be a regular day for giving thanks, "unless another date be appointed by the civil authorities."

For many years there was no regular national Thanksgiving Day in the United States. Some of the states had a yearly Thanksgiving holiday, and others did not. New York adopted an official state Thanksgiving Day in 1817, and other Northern States soon followed. Virginia was the first Southern State to adopt the custom, proclaiming a Thanksgiving Day in 1855.

Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey's Lady's Book, worked many years to promote the idea of a national Thanksgiving Day before President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November 1863 as "a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficient Father." For the next 75 years, the President of the United States formally proclaimed that Thanksgiving Day should be celebrated on the last Thursday of November. But in 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt set it one week earlier because he wanted to help business by lengthening the shopping period before Christmas. Congress finally ruled that after 1941 the fourth Thursday of November would be observed as Thanksgiving Day and would be a legal federal holiday, and it has been so observed since.


World Book Encyclopedia. Chicago: World Book-Childcraft International, 1979.

See Also

President George Washington
President Abraham Lincoln
President Franklin Roosevelt

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This page was last updated on 08/28/2018.