Thursday, 30 September 2010
The Third Thanksgiving
Dear reader, you may not be aware, but this Sunday is a significant date in the American Thanksgiving lexicon, for on 3 October 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln announced that the nation would celebrate an official Thanksgiving holiday on November 26, 1863.
In his speech, written by Secretary of State William Seward (who later purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867), Lincoln declared:
“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 who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
He had good precedent for the timing and substance of the announcement: George Washington, in his first term as the first president of these United States, made a similar announcement on 3 October 1789, and it just so happened that 26 November was the day proposed then as well, an interesting and happy calendar coincidence involving two of our most esteemed presidents. Washington called for an official celebratory "day of public thanksgiving and prayer," and Congress overwhelmingly agreed, but neither envisioned an annual holiday at the time.
“Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor-- and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States 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 form of government for their safety and happiness.”
“Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next  to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be . . . .”
“Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.”
Washington proposed another day of thanksgiving, years later, in 1795, and John Adams followed suit in 1798 and 1799. Thomas Jefferson did not, in deference to the principle of separation of Church and State, but James Madison reinstituted the practice in 1814 and twice in 1815, but none of Madison’s were celebrated in autumn. No other president did so until Lincoln in 1863.
The fourth Thursday of November remained the norm until 1939, when Franklin D. Roosevelt, hoping to boost the economy by providing a few extra shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, moved it to the third Thursday. In 1941, however, Congress set Thanksgiving as the last Thursday, later amended to the fourth Thursday, and the President signed it into federal law on 26 December 1941. It has been celebrated ever since, and the staples of turkey, dressing, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie make their annual appearance in Army mess halls worldwide and even are delivered with great difficulty to most troops on the front lines in time of war.
Now for the question of when the first Thanksgiving in North America was celebrated. Some place it in 1541, when the Coronado Expedition celebrated with a Thanksgiving Mass on 23 May after crossing Texas safely and finding abundant wild game and puzzled Native Americans in Palo Duro Canyon. Then there is the Thanksgiving Mass celebrated at St. Augustine, Florida, on 8 September 1565 by 600 Spaniards led by Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles. Others hold with the Thanksgiving held on 18 December after the Continental Army victory over Burgoyne at Saratoga from 19 September to 7 October 1777. The Continental Congress proclaimed additional days of thanksgiving annually through 1781 and then again in 1783 (so Washington had a precedent). Still others stand by 4 December 1619, when 38 English settlers arrived at Berkeley Hundred, about 20 miles from Jamestown, considered the first permanent colony in the New World (established 14 May 1607). The group’s charter required that the date of arrival be celebrated annually and perpetually as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God, but the massacre of 1622 ended that observance. Nine settlers were killed and the survivors fell back on the Jamestown area. Nevertheless, it was a truly religious day of thanksgiving and took place two years before the feast held by the Pilgrims at Plymouth.
The Pilgrims nowadays receive all the credit for Thanksgiving because of their celebration following their first harvest in 1621, but it is now thought to have been more of a harvest festival, common both in England and among the Native American tribes, than a religious observance. There is reference to the harvest, attendance by Massasoit and a number of his tribe (90 in contrast to about 50 settlers), and hunting birds and deer, but little of a religious nature. A greater celebration was held in 1623, when the settlement abandoned communal farming, resulting in a more bounteous harvest from individual tracts of farmland. But the Pilgrims take second place at best and fourth place at worst.
The Puritans held different religious beliefs and established their Massachusetts Bay Colony to the north at what is now Boston in 1628. Their first Thanksgiving was held in 1630 and intermittently thereafter until 1680, when it became an annual event.
Connecticut held their first Thanksgiving in 1639 and made it an annual event in 1647. The Dutch held their first in 1644. Many of the other colonies eventually held religious observances of their own over years, culminating in the decrees of the Continental Congress during our Revolutionary War and President Washington thereafter. Whatever date you choose to honor as the genesis of our national holiday, pray permit your humble servant to be the first to wish you a blessed and happy Thanksgiving for 2010.
Your humble servant, J. Phoenix, Esquire.
Please forward guest articles, comments and suggestions for future topics to JPhoenix@wpaog.org
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