Thanksgiving Goes National

There is very little serious dispute that the first Thanksgiving feast in America, the one all the others are linked to, was with the Pilgrims and Native tribes in the fall of 1621. I say “little dispute” because there are always some who want to darken historical facts. Those disputes, in my opinion, are false and purely designed to spread hate and division. Therefore, pay them no heed.

Harvest Feasts and Festivals

Harvest feasts for thanks or celebration were not an unusual happening, the tradition dating back centuries in just about every culture. It is known that even as early as the mid-1500s, on what is now American soil, there were thanksgiving-type feasts by other explorers and colonists. No one argues this, yet none of these observances were carried on past a one-time event. None of them were notable or in any way influenced the Pilgrim’s Thanksgiving, or led to the holiday we now observe.

The Puritans, who accounted for a majority of the Mayflower Pilgrims, had since the early 1500s held specific holidays called Days of Thanksgiving to honor various events, including harvests. All of these held religious significance, the Puritans thanking God for His blessings and bounty. Therefore, that 1621 Thanksgiving was not a unique idea, it was merely the first to be noted, and then carried on. The Pilgrims sporadically celebrated feasts of thanks in the years after 1621, although it is not known precisely how often. Most historians believe it was not until the late 1660s that annual harvest feasts became the norm.

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Thanksgiving proclamations were made by church and state leaders throughout New England, each one held locally and at varied dates. Reasons were usually for a good harvest, but also for religious observances and special blessings through times of trial. Political victories became a popular excuse when the Revolution hit the Colonies. In October of 1777 all thirteen colonies celebrated a day of Thanksgiving for the first time, and the inaugural National Day of Thanksgiving was proclaimed by President George Washington in 1789.

Washington declared Thursday, November 26, 1789, “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God.”

Yet even after President Washington’s national celebration, Thanksgiving did not immediately become an annual happening on the national level. Local communities continued to hold feast days, as before, but not until another great president and great war did the tradition draw national attention.

Sarah Josepha Hale

Born in the early 1800s, Sarah Hale was the matriarch of a large family, and every November gathered them together for a feast of thanksgiving. For forty years Hale advocated for a national, annual Thanksgiving holiday. She used her talent as a novelist – her first book, Northwood, published in 1827, included a whole chapter devoted to Thanksgiving traditions – and as a writer of children’s verses – she authored “Mary Had a Little Lamb” – and her position as editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book – a popular magazine for home and family – to spread her cause.

In the years leading up to the Civil War, she saw the holiday as a way to infuse hope and belief in the nation and the constitution. More and more State leaders were reading her endless letters and written articles, and establishing State decreed Thanksgiving holidays. When the United States was torn in half by the Civil War, Hale appealed directly to President Lincoln. Unlike the previous six presidents Hale had written to, Lincoln listened, and agreed.

Abraham Lincoln and Sarah Hale

On October 3, 1863, Lincoln issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation that declared the last Thursday in November (based on Washington’s date) to be a day of “thanksgiving and praise.”

Hale’s letter to President Lincoln.

Sharon Lathan

Sharon Lathan is the best-selling author of The Darcy Saga, a ten-volume sequel series to Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.

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