Ah Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday! I love this day because it is filled with family, food, football, and falling asleep. We have been taught that Tryptophan in the traditional turkey we eat causes this sleep inducing effect. This is just one of many facts that surprisingly are not true about Thanksgiving. According to WebMD, Turkey has less Tryptophan than chicken! What other blatant lies have I allowed myself to believe in order to rationalize stuffing my face with food, taking a nap, watching football, and then repeating the process? Well it turns out I had a lot to learn about Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving has not always been in November or on the same day. In 1789 Congress passed a resolution urging President George Washington to set aside a national day of thanksgiving. Washington responded with his Thanksgiving Proclamation stating that Thursday, November 26, 1789 would be the first Thanksgiving under our new Constitution. Washington wrote, “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.’” What you may not know is that Thanksgiving from that point until the Lincoln administration was celebrated each year but not always on the same day or even the same month!
Then a woman named Sarah Josepha Hale, a 74-year-old magazine editor, wrote a letter to President Lincoln asking for a specific day to be set aside for a “fixed Union Festival”. She was an avid reader who noticed that all the books she saw and read were written by men. She was inspired to, “promote the reputation of my own sex, and do something for my own country.” She became known as The Godmother of Thanksgiving!
In the midst of a Civil War the President responded quickly. Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation was believed to have been written by then Secretary of State William Seward. The Proclamation states, “I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, 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.”
The last Thursday of November was set as the day for thanksgiving and prayer until President Franklin Roosevelt ran into a problem. In 1939, President Roosevelt was doing everything he could to stimulate the economy after the Great Depression. If Roosevelt waited for the last Thursday in November of that year, Thanksgiving would fall on the last day of the month. FDR was worried that this might slow economic recovery by shortening the Christmas shopping season. He therefore issued another Thanksgiving Proclamation that pushed the holiday back to the second to last Thursday in November. This proclamation made the debate over the date of Thanksgiving worse. Only 32 states issued similar proclamations while 16 held to the Lincoln standard. Thanksgiving was celebrated on two different days in different states for the next 2 years!
Congress agreed that they had to make a standard date for Thanksgiving. The House passed a joint resolution on October 6, 1941 making the last Thursday of November the official Thanksgiving Day. In order to account for the days when November has five Thursdays, the Senate amended the resolution to specify that the fourth Thursday in November would be the official date. The House agreed and on December 26, 1941, FDR signed the resolution and the fourth Thursday in November became the official Federal Thanksgiving Day!
I find it interesting that some of our greatest leaders in times of turmoil understood the need to be thankful. Washington’s Proclamation came after our long fight for Independence. Lincoln’s Proclamation came after the Civil War battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg (1863) while Roosevelt’s came just 19 days after Pearl Harbor (1941). They were thankful in spite of extremely difficult situations, personal and political losses, and enormous pressure. Through it all our country does have a lot to be thankful for especially the men and women of our armed forces who have defended our freedoms. I wish every day was Thanksgiving, not to stuff my face with food and watch football, but to truly be thankful for all the blessings bestowed upon us as a country!