The Pilgrims set ground at Plymouth Rock on November 21, 1620 (by our
modern Gregorian calendar--it was November 11 to the Pilgrims who used
the Julian calendar). Their first winter was devastating. At the
beginning of the following fall, they had lost 46 of the original 102
who sailed on the Mayflower. The harvest of 1621 was a bountiful one.
The remaining colonists decided to celebrate with a feast, including 91
Indians who had helped the Pilgrims survive their first year. It is
believed that the Pilgrims would not have made it through the year
without the help of the natives. The feast was more of a traditional
English harvest festival than a true "thanksgiving" observance. The
Pilgrims' first Thanksgiving began at some unknown date between
September 21 and November 9, most likely in very early October. It
lasted three days.
This "Thanksgiving" feast was not repeated the following year. In
1623, during a severe drought, the pilgrims gathered in a prayer
service, praying for rain. When a long, steady rain followed the very
next day, Governor Bradford proclaimed another day of Thanksgiving,
again inviting their Indian friends. It wasn't until June of 1676 that
another Day of Thanksgiving was proclaimed.
On June 20, 1676, the governing council of Charlestown,
Massachusetts held a meeting to determine how best to express thanks for
the good fortune that had seen their community securely established. By
unanimous vote they instructed Edward Rawson, the clerk, to proclaim
June 29 as a day of thanksgiving.
October of 1777 marked the first time that all 13 colonies joined
in a thanksgiving celebration. It also commemorated the patriotic
victory over the British at Saratoga. This was only a one-time affair.
Several Presidents, including George Washington, made a one-time
Thanksgiving holiday. Washington proclaimed a National Day of
Thanksgiving in 1789, although some were opposed to it. There was
discord among the colonies, many feeling the hardships of a few Pilgrims
did not warrant a national holiday. Later, President Thomas Jefferson
scoffed at the idea of having a day of thanksgiving.
It was Sarah Josepha Hale, a magazine editor, whose efforts
eventually led to what we recognize as Thanksgiving. Hale wrote many
editorials championing her cause in her Boston Ladies' Magazine, and
later, in Godey's Lady's Book. Finally, after a 40-year campaign of
writing editorials and letters to governors and presidents, Hale's
obsession became a reality in 1863. President Lincoln proclaimed the
last Thursday in November as a national day of Thanksgiving.
Every president proclaimed
Thanksgiving after Lincoln. The date was changed a couple of times.
Lincoln's designation as the last Thursday in November (which could
occasionally end up being the fifth Thursday and hence too close to
Christmas for businesses) was changed by Franklin Roosevelt in 1939. He
set it up one week to the next-to-last Thursday in order to create a
longer Christmas shopping season. Two years later, public uproar against
this decision caused the president to move Thanksgiving back to its
original date. In 1941, Congress finally sanctioned Thanksgiving as a
legal holiday, as the fourth Thursday in November.
Edward Winslow wrote a letter to a friend in England that
describes the meal shared by the Pilgrims with the Indians.
Edward Winslow's 1621 Thanksgiving letter