By Jackie Cushman- Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. A day of family gatherings, feasting, football and the last respite before the start of the Christmas shopping season. The focus is on spending time together rather than giving gifts and attending cocktail parties.
Thanksgiving began in 1621, when the Pilgrims invited the Wampanoag Indians to join them in celebration of the fall harvest. The Indians traveled for several days, created their own camp and stayed with the Pilgrims for three days of feasting and celebration. This first Thanksgiving sounds similar to our tradition of family members invading a relative’s home and staying there for days on end.
The holiday received official status in 1789, with George Washington’s first presidential proclamation, which designated the 26th day of November next to be set aside for thanksgiving. “It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God and to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor,” Washington wrote.
For decades afterward, states set aside different dates to celebrate Thanksgiving. It took the persistent efforts of Sarah Josepha Hale to get the nation as a whole to observe Thanksgiving on the same day.
Hale was born in New Hampshire in 1788. Her brother, Horatio, helped her earn an education by teaching her what he had learned at Dartmouth each time he returned home. After he received his diploma, he presented it to Sarah, in recognition of her accomplishment.
At 18, Sarah founded a private school and taught there until she met and married David Hale. While married, she wrote short stories and articles that were published in newspapers.
When Sarah was in her late 30s, her husband died suddenly. After a failed attempt at making and selling women’s hats, Sarah published a book that attracted the attention of Rev. John Blake, the owner of a new women’s magazine. He hired her as the editor.
Hale wrote poetry and fiction. One of her best-known works is the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
Hale worked for nearly 40 years to get the United States to adopt an official day of thanks to be celebrated throughout the country. She lobbied five presidents and wrote numerous newspaper editorials in support of a single day of thanksgiving.
In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared a day of thanksgiving after the Union victories at Vicksburg, Mississippi; and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. After receiving a letter from Hale urging him to set aside a permanent, single day of thanksgiving, Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day.
Lincoln’s proclamation, made during the Civil War, acknowledged “the gracious gifts of the Most High God” and noted that it seemed “fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.” Lincoln invited his fellow citizens to observe “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
Thanksgiving has been celebrated as a national holiday since Lincoln’s proclamation. While this established a single Thanksgiving Day for our nation, the holiday’s date has continued to change every year.
In 1939, in an effort to lengthen the Christmas selling season, President Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving up a week — to the next-to-last Thursday of November. This created much confusion regarding which Thursday was the correct day for Thanksgiving. In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed legislation making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November.
This year’s date is the earliest we celebrate Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is a family holiday; its one constant is time to sit down and eat together. While this might seem simplistic and unimportant to some, studies have proven there is great value in family gatherings for meals. Our family is particularly thankful this year, as our oldest daughter is home from college and we are all together.
That same positive impact of dining together may hold true for the nation, too.
Coming together to break bread and share time may help families overcome miscommunication, misunderstanding and misinterpretation. If so, let us gather together, be thankful and, as Lincoln wrote in his proclamation, “fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”