The fourth Thursday in November is the official national celebration of Thanksgiving in the United States. It hasn’t always been official, nor on the fourth Thursday.
In elementary school we learned that the first Thanksgiving was celebrated by the Pilgrims in Massachusetts in 1621. But seven years ago, when Dennis and I went to Virginia to visit Williamsburg, Monticello, and the hunt race at Madison’s Montpelier, we also visited some Charles River plantations, including Berkeley Plantation, which claims that honor. At this site in December 1619, a group of British settlers led by captain John Woodlief knelt in humble prayer and pledged “Thanksgiving” to God for their healthy arrival after a long voyage across the Atlantic.
Throughout the first century of the republic there were a number of Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamations, but not necessarily on a regular basis. The first was issued by George Washington on October 3, 1789.
Then in the midst of the horrors of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln on October 3, 1863 proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving to be observed on the last Thursday of November “as a day of Thanksgiving and praise.” It was almost as if things were so bad, that it was necessary to look beyond the bloodshed to discern some greater purpose.
At the beginning of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency, Thanksgiving was not a fixed holiday and it was up to the President to issue a Thanksgiving Proclamation to announce what date the holiday would fall on. Most states followed Lincoln’s precedent and observed the last Thursday of November. But in 1939 there were two days celebrated a week apart. As a reaction to the Great Depression, Roosevelt decided to declare the third Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving. That was to give retailers an extra week of shopping before Christmas. (Of course today the Christmas shopping season starts almost before Halloween!) Most states, however, in 1939 continued to observe that last Thursday; so there were two Thanksgivings that year. (And World War II in Europe was already near the end of its third month.)
Franklin Roosevelt observed Thanksgiving on the second to last Thursday of November for two more years, but the amount of public outrage prompted Congress to pass a law on December 26, 1941, ensuring that all Americans would celebrate a unified Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November every year, and that’s the way it’s been ever since. I don’t know how my grandfather Bob Rich voted, but he probably was in favor of it. Note that the vote was after Pearl Harbor, so the psychology may have been a little like Lincoln’s during the Civil War.
A few other countries have National Days of Thanksgiving. After observing several different dates, the Canadian Parliament on January 31, 1957 proclaimed “A day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed… to be observed on the 2nd Monday in October.”
Great Britain likewise has a “Harvest Festival” Day of Thanksgiving held every year in the month of September, on a Sunday nearing the harvest moon. I attended such a Harvest Festival Thanksgiving service at Lincoln Cathedral in 1988. The preacher that day was Neville Chamberlain’s grandson, or great-nephew, I don't remember which.
(The week before I had seen a BBC revisionist documentary on Neville Chamberlain, which put a somewhat different perspective on his blame for, and contribution to the outcome of WWII. After being burned by Hitler’s occupation of all Czechoslovakia in violation of the Munich accord, Chamberlain ordered the building of the Spitfires, which eventually won the Battle of Britain. Had war started in 1938, the Germans would have had clear air superiority. Reality is frequently more nuanced than popular perceptions. Counter-factual history, though fascinating, guarantees absolutely nothing.)
[For the record, I prefer the British pronunciation of the word 'THANKS-giving'. To me it seems closer to the meaning.]
Anyway, have a Happy and thank-full Thanksgiving!
elements of text courtesy wikipedia.com