We celebrate Thanksgiving Day because of Henry VIII, the Gunpowder Plot, the 1619 landing of 38 English colonists in Virginia (without slaves), the Pilgrims, the end of the American Revolution, the beginning of the American Republic, the Civil War, and the need to stimulate the economy in the late 1930s. And it might have been called Evacuation Day.
Thanksgiving as we know it today in the United States evolved over a period of some 400 years. The idea of thanksgiving observances goes back to the Protestant Reformation in England under Henry VIII, consolidating a rather large number of thanksgiving holidays during the Roman Catholic period. Special days of Thanksgiving would be called for military victories and for deliverance from such events as the Gunpowder Plot of 1606.
The idea of Thanksgiving and feasting, but without a fixed date, had been around by the time of the American colonial period. The first known Thanksgiving celebration in America was not in 1621 with the Pilgrims but in 1619 in Virginia, when 38 English settlers arrived on the ship Margaret on Dec. 4 and immediately celebrated their landing with a day of thanksgiving, as required under the charter of the London Company which sponsored them. The landing day was to be observed in perpetuity.
The Pilgrims (and the Puritans) brought their tradition of thanksgiving days with them from Europe. The Pilgrims celebrated their first day of thanksgiving in 1621, and it is this observance that’s considered the forerunner of what we know today.
Not everyone in the American colonies celebrated a day of thanksgiving. The observance varied by colony (and later by state); in New York, for example, thanksgiving day was known as Evacuation Day, an observance of the departure of British troops in 1783 after the end of the American Revolution. George Washington led his army down Manhattan Island to what is now Battery Park in a grand triumphal march. And it was Washington who, as the nation’s first Preisdent, proclaimed the first National Day of Thanksgiving on Nov. 26, 1789. By the end of the 18th century, the last Thursday in November had become the day went most states observed a Day of Thanksgiving.
It was Abraham Lincoln who made it an official national day of observance. In November of 1863 (the same month as the Gettysburg Address), Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving to be observed by all states on the final Thursday of November. This was in recognition of both the bountiful harvests the Northern states had experienced and the military victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg.
Thanksgiving Day remained the last Thursday in November until 1939, when President Roosevelt proclaimed it to be the next-to-last Thursday of November. This was done to stimulate retail sales by extending the Christmas shopping season – an early recognition of the commercial importance of Black Friday as the day after Thanksgiving. Finally, in 1941, Congress and Roosevelt officially made the fourth Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day. And there it’s remained ever since.
But for all the reasons it was created and observed, what has been at its heart from the beginning is thankfulness to God for his provision and faithfulness. And that is, perhaps, the most important aspect of this holiday we call Thanksgiving.
Top photograph: Union soldiers celebrate the first national Thanksgiving Day in 1863.