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Creating a National Thanksgiving Holiday

Politics, Economics, and Changing Thanksgiving Dates


Growing Thanksgiving Traditions

Over the next hundred years, each colony had different traditions and dates for celebrations. Some were not annual though Massachusetts and Connecticut both celebrated Thanksgiving annually on November 20 and Vermont and New Hampshire observed it on December 4. On December 18, 1775, the Continental Congress declared December 18 to be a national day of Thanksgiving for the win at Saratoga. Over the next nine years, they declared six more Thanksgivings with one Thursday set aside each fall as a day of prayer.

George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving Proclamation by a President of the United States on November 26, 1789. Interestingly, some of the future presidents such as Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson would not agree to resolutions for a national day of Thanksgiving because they felt it was not within their constitutional power. Over these years, Thanksgiving was still being celebrated in many states, but often on different dates. Most states, however, celebrated it sometime in November.

Sarah Josepha Hale and Thanksgiving

Sarah Josepha Hale is an important figure in gaining a national holiday for Thanksgiving. Hale wrote the novel Northwood; or Life North and South in 1827 which argued for the virtue of the North against the evil slave owners of the South. One of the chapters in her book discussed the importance of Thanksgiving as a national holiday. She became the editor of the Ladies' Magazine in Boston. This would eventually become the Lady's Book and Magazine, also known as Godey's Lady's Book, the most widely distributed magazine in the country during the 1840s and 50s. Beginning in 1846, Hale began her campaign to make the last Thursday in November a Thanksgiving national holiday. She wrote an editorial for the magazine about this each year and wrote letters to governors in every state and territory. On September 28, 1863 during the Civil War, Hale wrote a letter to President Abraham Lincoln “as Editress(sic) of the 'Lady's Book' to have the day of annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival." Then on October 3, 1863, Lincoln, in a proclamation written by Secretary of State William Seward, proclaimed a nationwide Thanksgiving Day as the last Thursday of November.

The New Deal Thanksgiving

After 1869, each year the president proclaimed the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day. However, there was some contention over the actual date. Each year individuals tried to change the date of the holiday for various reasons. Some wanted to combine it with Armistice Day, November 11 commemorating the day when the armistice was signed between the allies and Germany to end World War I. However, the real argument for a date change came about in 1933 during the depths of the Great Depression. The National Dry Retail Goods Association asked President Franklin Roosevelt to move the date of Thanksgiving that year since it would fall on November 30. Since the traditional shopping season for Christmas then as now started with Thanksgiving, this would leave a short shopping season reducing possible sales for the retailers. Roosevelt refused. However, when Thanksgiving would again fall on November 30, 1939, Roosevelt then agreed. Even though Roosevelt's proclamation only set the actual date of Thanksgiving as the 23rd for the District of Columbia, this changed caused a furor. Many people felt that the president was messing with tradition for the sake of the economy. Each state decided for itself with 23 states choosing to celebrate on the New Deal date of November 23 and 23 staying with the traditional date. Texas and Colorado decided to celebrate Thanksgiving twice!

The confusion of the date for Thanksgiving continued through 1940 and 1941. Due to the confusion, Roosevelt announced that the traditional date of the last Thursday in November would return in 1942. However, many individuals wanted to insure that the date would not be changed again. Therefore, a bill was introduced that Roosevelt signed into law on November 26, 1941 establishing the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day. This has been followed by every state in the union since 1956.

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