Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving and Happy Birthday (November 28, 2013)

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" by Jennie A. Brownscombe (1914)

We all think we are pretty familiar with the Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S.  It is the holiday that is popularly recognized as having started in 1621 with the Mayflower "Pilgrims."  The Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts in 1620 and only 53 of the 102 Mayflower passengers survived the first winter.  As any grammar school student will tell you, following their first harvest in 1621, the surviving Pilgrims held a feast of thanksgiving in celebration.  The feast lasted three days and 90 Native Americans attended as guests.  Many think that Thanksgiving was thereafter established by tradition as a November harvest feast and holiday -- but like most things to do with holidays and celebrations in the U.S., it is not that simple.

The genesis of Thanksgiving as a celebration in the U.S. is mixed up in trying to make distinctions between religious celebrations of Thanksgiving and a public holiday celebration established by
proclamation or statute.  As early as the 1500s, religious observances of thanksgiving were practiced by Spaniards in areas that eventually became part of the U.S. In Jamestown, Virginia there were religious services of thanksgiving as early as 1610 -- 11 years before the harvest feast of the Pilgrims in 1621.

In the early colonial period in America periodic festivals of "giving thanks" were celebrated by various colonies on different dates and not every year.  The first national celebration of thanksgiving in America came after the Declaration of Independence when the Continental Congress declared the First Proclamation of Thanksgiving in 1777 -- while temporarily located at York, Pennsylvania because the British occupied Philadelphia.  And in December 1777, George Washington declared a victory celebration of thanksgiving after the British were defeated at Saratoga, New York.  Various designations of thanksgiving celebrations took place after American Independence was declared and the Revolutionary War was fought until George Washington, as President, created and declared in the City of New York the first Thanksgiving Day on October 3, 1789.  Subsequent presidents also declared Thanksgivings and some state governors did likewise until President Lincoln, during
the raging of the Civil War via a Presidential Proclamation, established a national Thanksgiving Day on October 3, 1863 and set the celebration for the "last Thursday of November" in 1863.

Since 1863 "Thanksgiving" has been celebrated as a national holiday in the United States, but not with the kind of uniformity and lack of controversy that most of us would think.

All of the Presidents after Lincoln followed the Lincoln proclamation and annually declared the last Thursday of November as the Thanksgiving holiday.  But then, in 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt was faced with a November having five Thursdays rather than the usual four AND he was presented with the argument (in the midst of the Depression) that making the Thanksgiving holiday the fourth Thursday rather than the last Thursday that November would give more shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas and thereby help the economy.  He was convinced and proclaimed the next to last Thursday in November 1939 to be the national Thanksgiving holiday. Despite protests from Republicans that the change to the fourth Thursday from the "last Thursday" in November was an affront to the tradition established by Lincoln, within two years of FDR's switch to the fourth Thursday in November, the holiday was established as the fourth Thursday each November.  On October 6, 1941 a joint resolution of Congress fixed the national Thanksgiving holiday as the fourth Thursday of each November beginning with November 26, 1942.

The transition of our national Thanksgiving holiday to the fourth Thursday in November from the "last Thursday" did not go smoothly, however, and for a time many people called November 30th (because the last Thursday in 1939 was November 30th) the "Republican Thanksgiving" and called November 23rd (because the fourth Thursday in 1939 was November 23rd) the "Democratic Thanksgiving" or "Franksgiving" (an apparent amalgamation of "Franklin's Thanksgiving"). The years 1940 and 1941 each had only four Thursdays in November and FDR declared the third Thursday in each of those years as Thanksgiving.  Many states and localities had a tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving as the last Thursday of November and they were loath to give up that tradition. Also, the fact that football schedules were made far in advance and so the traditional Thanksgiving Day games were already set for the last Thursday, further complicated any change.  Annual presidential declarations were not legally binding and so only 23 states followed Roosevelt's proclamation while 22 did not.  Texas was one state that could not or would not decide between the two options and so took both days as holidays.

Finally, as I mentioned in an earlier post here on The Prism about the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, that horrible crime and Thanksgiving have ever since been connected in my mind because Thanksgiving in 1963 was a mere six days after the assassination.  What I did not say then, is that both of those events are also forever linked in my mind with my father's birthday.  My father was born on November 28th and the fourth Thursday in November 1963 was the 28th -- Thanksgiving Day six days after the assassination was also my father's birthday.  And now today, 50 years later, my father's birthday is once again on Thanksgiving Day.  Today our family will be giving thanks for many things and will gather together in celebration.  Chief among the celebrations for us today will be the thanksgiving of having our parents with us as we celebrate my father's 91st birthday.


[Due to the celebration of Thanksgiving and my father's birthday at my sister's home in another state, The Prism will be on a brief hiatus for several days.  Happy Thanksgiving to all!]      
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Image of "The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" by Jennie A. Brownscombe (1914).  The image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. 

Photograph of A.G. Tew, Jr. in the collection of the author.

For more information on the history of Thanksgiving in the U.S., see
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Copyright 2013, John D. Tew
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1 comment:

  1. Hope you had a great Thanksgiving with your family, John!