See What Happened Was...
fun stories from history
Let’s start at the beginning. The original Thanksgiving was motivated by three different traditions—the Wampanoag people's practice of offering thanks to the Creator during harvest time, the Europeans’ annual celebration of the harvest, and the Puritan’s belief in religious holidays as a way of acknowledging and thanking God for his provision during difficult times.
Because this kind of celebration was so widely observed across these different people groups it’s not hard to imagine that similar celebrations might have been happening elsewhere—and they were. It is likely that Spanish and other English settlers had their own harvest feasts years before the Mayflower reached North America, but we didn’t know much about these until the 20th century, so it is unlikely that they are the direct ancestors of our beloved food fest.
So, after the first meal with Squanto and Co. how did the tradition become what it is today?
Thanks to the foundation of the tradition of a harvest festival, a feast at this time of year continued to be celebrated throughout the colonies. As the Puritan way of life faded, the focus began to shift away from the religious significance of the meal and towards an emphasis on appreciating family and home. And football. Just kidding, no football yet.
This widespread tradition first became a national, officially recognized holiday in 1777 with a declaration by the Continental Congress—so eaaaarly days of the US of A. But alas, Thanksgiving’s struggle for annual, national recognition was not yet won. Although Presidents Washington, Adams and Monroe proclaimed days of thanksgiving, by 1815 it was no longer nationally declared. The joy of the season lived on however, as individual states would declare their own times of thanksgiving feasting.
In order for Thanksgiving to achieve the national recognition it desired, it needed a Champion. Someone to shout its praise from the rooftops and fight for its place at the official holidays’ table. That champion rose from obscurity as the editor of a popular magazine to fight for this cause. That champion was Sarah Josepha Hale.
In 1827 she began her campaign to have Thanksgiving officially recognized by the President as in days of old. After trying and failing to persuade president after president she found her man—good ol’ Abe. She and President Lincoln saw the potential of this holiday to help unify the torn country. He liked the idea so much that he called for two days of Thanksgiving—August 6 after the Battle of Gettysburg (which probably appealed more to people supporting the Union than the Confederacy...) and the last Thursday in November. Yaaaaaay we have the date!
Although Lincoln did call for national days of Thanksgiving, he didn’t establish it as an annual event. As such, each president had to re-declare it every year with the last Thursday in November as the customary date. That is, except for that one time when FDR tried to move it up a week to lengthen the Christmas shopping season, hoping to boost the economy. This threw people off so much that Congress stepped in and officially declared that Thanksgiving be celebrated on the last Thursday of November annually. Yaaaaaay we have a permanent date!
These days the president continues to play a key, key role in the celebration of Thanksgiving—every year, he pardons a turkey. It is a bit unclear as to where this tradition began, but in 1989 we have the beginnings of the official ceremony when George H. W. Bush called to "Reprieve," "keep him going," or “pardon” the turkey. Since then every year the president is presented with a turkey to pardon.
It’s a nice tradition. Doesn’t make a lot of sense (I mean, are they implying that all turkeys have committed a federal crime and have been sentenced to capital punishment and the only way for one to escape its fate is a presidential pardon?), but a nice tradition nonetheless.
So that’s Thanksgiving. Now go stuff your face!