A Brief History of Thanksgiving

So I was reading about the exact origins of our American Thanksgiving holiday, as I’m wont to do on a Tuesday afternoon while waiting to get my teeth cleaned, and found myself wholly enlightened.

As much as we mythologize the tale of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Plantation partying with some Indians after a rough winter, that’s a whole load of bullshit. Contemporary accounts don’t even recognize that particular party as a day of thanksgiving, merely a harvest celebration.

Thanksgiving as we know it–that is to say a national holiday in November centered around food and family–was instituted in 1863 by President Lincoln. Prior to that, the President would periodically issue national days of Thanksgiving but these were not regular nor did they have a set date. Governors in states and territories would also issue days of Thanksgiving.

In 1863, in the midst of the Civil War but with the Republic having turned the corner toward victory, President Lincoln proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving to be held on the final Thursday in November to promote national unity and ask for divine guidance and support in repairing the Union. Subsequent Presidents followed suit and slowly various Thanksgiving traditions began to codify throughout the country.

Fast forward to 1939. This November had five Thursdays in it, so President Roosevelt decreed Thanksgiving to be on the penultimate Thursday instead of the final Thursday in November. His intention was to make the next-to-last Thursday in November Thanksgiving Day regardless of whether future Novembers had four or five Thursdays. The Depression was still in full swing and Roosevelt reasoned that giving merchants an extra week of sales opportunities prior to Christmas would boost the economy. This change was pushed for by the founder of Federated Department Stores, later to become Macy’s, Inc.

(It should be noted that at this time it was considered in very poor taste to start decorating for Christmas and promoting Christmas merchandise prior to Thanksgiving. This is a tradition that we should consider reviving.)

In something a bit analogous to our present political climate, the Republicans protested the change and its perceived offense to Lincoln’s legacy. That year, many Republicans celebrated “Republican Thanksgiving” on the final Thursday of the month and derisively referred to the earlier Thanksgiving as “Franksgiving” in backhanded homage to Roosevelt.

For the next two years, Roosevelt declared Thanksgiving on the third Thursday of each of the next two Novembers, despite there being only four Thursdays in November in 1940 and 1941. As a Presidential proclamation of this nature carried no legal requirement for state observance, people continued to celebrate the holiday on whichever week matched their political leanings. Some celebrated both days.

In 1941, the House of Representatives passed a law aiming to fix Thanksgiving as a federal holiday on the final Thursday in November. In a stunning example of *GASP* Congressional compromise, the Senate amended the bill to fix Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday in November. Perhaps in a spirit of World War Two comity, the House passed the amendment and Roosevelt signed the bill, for the first time making the date of Thanksgiving Day a matter of federal law.

(It should be noted that several asshole states did keep celebrating Thanksgiving on the fifth Thursday out of spite in 1944–the next year with five Thursdays. Texas continued such celebrations as late as 1956.)

So there you have it. Thanksgiving Day is not about Pilgrims and Indians. Nor should it be viewed as an affirmation of genocide–that’s what Columbus Day is for. Thanksgiving Day came out of an appeal for national unity and thankfulness as America slowly emerged from the most cataclysmic conflict in its history and, in more peaceful times, turned into a day for families and friends to be together, share a meal, and remember and reaffirm the things that bring us together.

I love Thanksgiving. It might be my favorite holiday because it really is the only one that centers on family togetherness without revolving around gross consumerism or the trappings of any one particular religion. Despite the Christian connotations of days of “thanksgiving,” the idea of reflecting on the good things in your life so as to find a new appreciation for what you have, transcends any one faith.

So, fuck the Pilgrims, eat some turkey, and have a very Happy Thanksgiving!

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About David D.

I'm a wine professional. Like a real one who makes most of his living in wine and have for most of my adult life. I also write, but you can see that.
This entry was posted in Dispatches From Academia, Food and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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