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Friday, November 28, 2014

A History of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is an American holiday.  The original Thanksgiving was held in 1621 when immigrants called pilgrims came to America on the sailing ship Mayflower to escape religious intolerance in first England and then in Holland. They came to America to start a new home where they would be free to practice their religion without such intolerance. They settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts and with help from the native Indians who showed them how to grow corn and other crops successfully, the pilgrims had a successful harvest.  They wanted to give thanks to God in prayer around a table with all kinds of delicious foods; they invited the Indians to share in their feast. The first Thanksgiving then in America was a Thanksgiving of prayer to God for a successful harvest while enjoying a Thanksgiving banquet.

However Thanksgiving was not established as a yearly affair after the original Thanksgiving. Through the years there would be occasional Thanksgivings of prayer along with a feast. In 1777 George Washington called for a day in December of that year to be an occasion of thanksgiving to God in prayer for the recent victories in the American Revolution, in particular the success of the Battle of Saratoga against the British who were trying to divide the colonies. It was that battle which brought the French into the war against England on the side of the Americans.

It was not until 1846 that Sarah Hale, a 19th century writer who was the author of “Mary had a Little Lamb”, wrote letters to successive presidents of the United States petitioning for the last Thursday of November to be a day of Thanksgiving each and every year. It was not until 1863 that Abraham Lincoln, responding to Sarah Hale’s petition, established the last Thursday of November of every year to be a day of Thanksgiving. Thus began the holiday of Thanksgiving as we know it today to be a day  concentrated on the expression of thanks through the feast of good food on the table surrounded by family and friends while the expression of thanks to God through prayer was not included.

In 1939 President Franklin Roosevelt decided to change the date in November for Thanksgiving to a week before the last Thursday in November so as to lengthen the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays to better serve the retail market and thus improve the economy. As a result, Thanksgiving as well as Christmas became secular holidays which marked the beginning and the end of a shopping season for people to purchase gifts and food for these festive holidays.

However this change in the day in November for Thanksgiving caused confusion because many states refused to comply with the new Thanksgiving date and stuck with the last Thursday in November as being the proper date for Thanksgiving. Happily Congress came to the rescue and in 1941 established the 4th Thursday of November as the one all states would adhere to for Thanksgiving from then on.

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