Since we won’t be meeting for Thursday evening Rotary dinner again until next month, it may be interesting to take a fresh look at what will preempt us next week. It’s the 153rd annual Thanksgiving Day.
Yes, 153rd. Not the 396th as some people think. True, the Pilgrims and the indigenous Wampanoags did share an autumn harvest feast that is acknowledged as the first such fete in the New World although there is no record extant that they ever gave it a title. And, they held a similar three-day party the following year, but it kind of dissipated as time went on.
And, yes, some sorts of harvest-period celebration have been commonplace in most parts of then world from time immemorial, so it is not surprising that the practice endured in one form or another. In the early years of our nation, presidents George Washington and John Adams issued proclamations about national days of thanks, but they were not necessarily regarded as national holidays and the practice fizzled. In 1817, New York State became the first of several U.S. states to officially adopt an annual Thanksgiving holiday, although each celebrated it on a different day.
Then, at the urging of magazine editor/writer Sarah Josepha Hale (author of such timeless tidbits as “Mary Had a Little Lamb”), who for decades had called for establishment of such a national holiday, Abraham Lincoln finally did so in 1864 during the Civil War.
The President issued a proclamation calling for all Americans to ask God to “commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” and to “heal the wounds of the nation.” He scheduled Thanksgiving for the final Thursday in November.
Echoing that sentiment, over the years the holiday in some places frequently took on religious overtones. Today, that still endures somewhat, although it often is overshadowed by commercial sales, football, and conspicuous consumption of all sorts.
Lincoln’s declaration wasn’t the final presidential word. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week in an attempt to spur retail sales during the Great Depression. That met widespread opposition across the land so, in 1941, FDR undecreed his decree and signed a bill making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November. And, that’s where we are today.