Did Your Ancestors Celebrate Thanksgiving?

By: Carolyn L Barkley

Thanksgiving Day is a week away. For those of us born in the United States during the mid to late twentieth-century, Thanksgiving has been a consistent part of our national pantheon of holidays. Its celebration, however, has not always been a part of our heritage, and would have played (or not) different roles in the lives of our ancestors, depending upon their geographical location and generation.

There are many claimants for the “first Thanksgiving.” Dr. Michael V. Gannon, in an article entitled “The Actual First Thanksgiving in America,” argues that the first such “community act of religion in the first permanent European settlement” occurred on 8 September 1565, in St. Augustine, Florida. The city of El Paso, Texas, claims that the first such event was held there in 1598, while Santa Fe, New Mexico, claims such a first observance in 1610. One of the strongest claims for the “first Thanksgiving,” is from Virginia, where on 4 December 1619, the settlers at Berkeley Plantation fulfilled the instructions given to them by the Virginia Company of London: “Wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

For many of us (particularly those who, like me, grew up in Massachusetts), however, the “real” Thanksgiving is inextricably linked to the Mayflower passengers and their three-day feast of thanksgiving held during the fall of 1621. In all probability, this event was a harvest festival, an event with which the Pilgrims would have been familiar. Following the devastating winter of 1620, the remaining residents of Plymouth Plantation must have truly rejoiced at the successful harvest of 1621. To honor their good fortune, and to thank the Native Americans who had played such an instrumental role in their survival, it was indeed appropriate for the settlers to gather to give thanks. In a first-person account of the event, Edward Winslow wrote, in a letter dated 12 December 1621, “…Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors…amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted…” Despite the importance of this thanksgiving, the feasting was not repeated the following year. No significant thanksgiving observance would occur until fifty years later, in 1671, when the town council of Charlestown, Massachusetts, proclaimed June 29th as a day of thanksgiving in recognition of the secure establishment of the town following victories over the Native American population (who, needless to say, were not invited to this feast). Such thanksgiving observances were more religious events than harvest festivals, although they were increasingly proclaimed by governing bodies of towns or colonies. The Charlestown Council’s proclamation stated that it had “thought meet to appoint and set apart the 29th day of this instant June, as a day of Solemn Thanksgiving and praise to God for such his Goodness and Favour…and that the Lord may behold us as a People offering Praise and thereby glorifying Him…”

The practice of proclaiming an official thanksgiving for a specific purpose would characterize several future such events. In December 1777, the thirteen original colonies participated in a celebration to give thanks for their victory in the Battle of Saratoga in September of that same year. The Continental Congress’s proclamation stated “It is therefore recommended to the legislative or executive powers of these United States to set apart Thursday, the eighteenth day of December next, for solemn thanksgiving and praise…And it is further recommended, that servile labor, and such recreation, as, thought at other times innocent, may be unbecoming the purpose of this appointment, be omitted on so solemn an occasion.” In 1789, George Washington issued a thanksgiving proclamation recommending “…to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.” Writing from New York City, Washington established that the day of thanksgiving would occur on 26 November 1789.

For the next eighty years, such days of thanksgiving would be irregular and associated with a specific event. While Washington proclaimed another thanksgiving observance in 1795 and John Adams would follow suit in 1798 and 1799, the Jefferson administration proclaimed no such events. James Madison would proclaim a thanksgiving in 1814, following the end of the War of 1812. There was no universal custom, and regions celebrated events, if any, on dates of their own choosing. The need to offer thanksgiving officially, however, remained on the minds of legislators and governors and some states moved to establish official observances: New Hampshire in 1816 and New York in 1817.

It would take a tireless advocate for a national thanksgiving day, however, to succeed in the establishment of an annual holiday. Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Boston Ladies’ Magazine and Godey’s Lady Book (and the author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”), pursued her dream of an annual national holiday for forty-years. Her frequent articles and a dogged letter-writing campaign had, by 1858, succeeded eliciting proclamations of days of thanksgiving from governors of twenty-five states and two territories. In 1863, at the height of the Civil War, President Lincoln met with Mrs. Hale, and the result was Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 3 October 1863. In it, he specified that the nation would observe an annual day of thanksgiving, set as the last Thursday of November. In his proclamation, Lincoln stated that “I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father…And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him..they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”

For the next seventy-five years, the Thanksgiving Day tradition would be continued by all of the presidents who succeeded Lincoln. 1939, however, was a year in which there were five Thursdays in November, rather than four. As common practice precluded the beginning of Christmas advertising until after Thanksgiving (oh! would that were true today), merchants were concerned that the period for holiday sales would be too short if they could not begin their ad campaigns until after November 30th. Given the need to promote economic recovery following the Depression, and due to the strong lobbying efforts of influential merchants such as Fred Lazarus Jr. of the Federated Department Stores (later Macy’s), Roosevelt agreed to move Thanksgiving Day to the next-to-the-last Thursday instead of the last, meaning that in some years it would be celebrated on the third Thursday and in others on the fourth. This change was not greeted with universal approbation, however, and some states simply ignored the change. This confusion would last for the next two years until Congress, in October 1941, passed a joint resolution reestablishing the last-Thursday-of-the-month-date for Thanksgiving. Two months later, however, the Senate passed an amendment stating that the holiday would be observed on the fourth Thursday of November and Roosevelt signed the amended legislation into law on December 26th.

Today, Thanksgiving Day, with its turkey and trimmings and family gatherings, is an integral part of our annual holiday observances. It may not have been a part of the lives of our ancestors, although they would have come together to give thanks for a bountiful harvest, a military victory, or other such special event. As we take time to consider what we are thankful for during the past year, let’s include thanks to our ancestors for their courage and fortitude in making new lives for themselves. Theirs are the shoulders on which we stand.

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