For most Americans, when we think of the origins of Thanksgiving in North America, we flash on images from old paintings of the Plymouth feast in 1621 and Pilgrims communing with Native Americans in what was for the Europeans, a brave new world.
However, the first Thanksgiving celebrated by Europeans that’s known to have taken place in the new world actually happened in Newfoundland [now part of Canada] in 1587, according to the Encyclopedia Smithsonian. That entry even speculates that some version of Thanksgiving was probably held by the Spanish explorers in Florida way before that.
But as James W. Baker says in his book, Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday, "Despite disagreements over the details” the fall 1621 celebration in Plymouth “was the historical birth of the American Thanksgiving holiday."
Technically, one could say that the history of our Thanksgiving - once the United States was born, that is - came with a presidential proclamation of a national day of thanksgiving signed by our nation’s first president, George Washington in 1789 just after he took office.
Washington asked in that proclamation that the American people hold "…a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a Constitution of government for their safety and happiness.”
More about how that’s played out in our history at the end of this article.
The celebration of Thanksgiving seems to have faded out a bit in the early 1800s, but a woman named Sara Josepha Hale thought that was a bad idea. In 1827, in her role as the editor of Godey's Lady's Book - a popular women's magazine of the day - she formally started a campaign to bring back the popularity and tradition of Thanksgiving and make it an official U.S. holiday.
That proved to be a mighty challenge. Before it was over, she had publicly - and unsuccessfully - petitioned several presidents. Hale’s efforts didn’t succeed until 1863 when she finally convinced President Abraham Lincoln that a national day of Thanksgiving might be of comfort to our Civil War-torn country.
That worked, in no small part due to the fact that the Union Army had just won the pivotal victory over Robert E. Lee's Confederate army at Gettysburg in July 1863. Prior to that, there had been far too many Union losses and downright non-actions in pivotal moments under previous battlefield commanders of Union forces. That had resulted in a string of fired generals before General George Meade won the Battle of Gettysburg.
Consequently, Lincoln was in a thankful mood, indeed. It looked like the Union was going to survive.
In keeping with that mood, Honest Abe issued his Thanksgiving proclamation in October and declared, "… the last Thursday in November next as a day…of thanksgiving and praise to Almighty God, the beneficent Creator and Ruler of the Universe."
According to the National Archives, the Thanksgiving Day we celebrate today became set in stone in 1941. That's when − after some wrangling about which Thursday in November to call Thanksgiving each year − Congress agreed to set the fourth Thursday in November as the Federal Thanksgiving Day holiday.
President Franklin Roosevelt signed the resolution on Dec. 26, 1941 and it’s been that way ever since.
Now back to what Washington said in that first thanksgiving proclamation in 1789.
Most of us will say grace at the Thanksgiving table and give thanks for the blessings of our families, friends and all the other treasures we have including the bounty of the day. It’s family tradition for most of us and something we rightly cherish.
But on top of that, it’s also important to remember that we are all watching something else to be grateful for this Thanksgiving - the current peaceful transfer enormous power at the federal government level.
No matter who you voted for, or even if you didn’t vote at all, it seems important to consider that given the astonishing rancor of the just-finished national election, seeing the “American family tradition’ of a peaceful change in the government of the United States of America unfolding before our eyes, is something to be cherished, too.
As we saw with the George H. W. Bush to Bill Clinton transition in 1993 for example, seeing the current administration - from a different national party than the new one - simply passing the baton to the administration that will take power on Jan. 20 is so American-elegant that it could rank right up there as mind boggling.
Yes, there are protesters in the streets who don’t like the results of the election, but there’s no outright insurrection. We don’t do that here.
Washington was downright prophetic with the last part of the closing line of his thanksgiving proclamation: “…affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a Constitution of government for their safety and happiness.”
Thus it has ever been in this great nation since then. Washington could have easily been the king of the United States of America, but he basically said, “No thanks. That’s not how we’re going to do it here. We’re going to share that power and hand it off to somebody new every few years.”
On top of all the rest of the blessings we Americans have, that’s an awful lot to be thankful for.
God bless America - and Happy Thanksgiving, y’all!