In less than a week, Americans -natives and new comers- will be celebrating Thanksgiving as a federal holiday. Despite its popularity and importance, not many, especially among new Americans, understand exactly what it means or entails.
Throughout the years, Thanksgiving Day has had different meanings and different significances. In October of 1863, President Abraham Lincoln set forth a proclamation for a national observance of a “day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
Days of Thanksgiving had originated with Puritans in Protestant England as a means to replace and/or supplement the large number of Catholic holidays that littered the calendar. English Dissenters, breaking away from the English Church that had broken away from the Catholic Church fled to America in the early 1600s, bringing with them a bias against other religions that continues today as well as the practice of Thanksgiving.
The first thanksgiving is often credited to an event that took place in Plymouth, Mass. in 1621, a fall harvest celebration that was celebrated by both Puritans and Native Americans, notably Squanto, who himself was Catholic.
During the American Revolutionary War the government of the United States made a habit of declaring official observance days of Thanksgiving. The first being December 18, 1777, to celebrate a victory against the British in Saratoga, New York.
From then on, Presidents of the United States sporadically declared proclamations of Thanksgiving, as well as Governors on a state by state basis.
In 1847, Sara Hale, a writer from New Hampshire, began writing letters calling for Thanksgiving to be declared a national holiday. In an 1848 editorial, she stated “May the last Thursday of the next November witness this glad and glorious festival, this feast of the ingathering of harvest, extended over our whole land, from the St. Johns to the Rio Grande, from the Plymouth Rock to the Sunset Sea.”
A letter to Abraham Lincoln dated September, 1863 reads: “As the President of the United States has the power of appointments for the District of Columbia and the Territories; also for the Army and Navy and all American citizens abroad who claim protection from the U. S. Flag — could he not, with right as well as duty, issue his proclamation for a Day of National Thanksgiving for all the above classes of persons? And would it not be fitting and patriotic for him to appeal to the Governors of all the States, inviting and commending these to unite in issuing proclamations for the last Thursday in November as the Day of Thanksgiving for the people of each State? Thus the great Union Festival of America would be established.”
After 17 years of hard lobbying, petitioning every president from Zachary Taylor to Buffalo’s own Milliard Fillmore, Lincoln was persuaded. He issued the following proclamation within a week of her letter, writing “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 next November as a day of thanksgiving.”
Following Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation, Thanksgiving continued to be celebrated in this fashion, based on year-by-year proclamations, until Congress fixed the holiday in 1941, to the fourth Thursday each November.