Thanksgiving’s long road to national holiday

Thanksgiving was celebrated in Canada on October 19 this year, and will be observed as Labor Thanksgiving in Japan, and in the United State of America on November 23 and 24 respectively this year. These appear to be the only places in the world where “Thanksgiving” is officially observed, although there may be other countries holding similar observances at other times during the year.

We all know the story of the first American Thanksgiving, held by the Pilgrims in the autumn of 1621, and how they celebrated their new-found religious freedom for three days, with some help from their neighbor Massassoit and members of his band.

In succeeding years they did observe Thanksgiving, but at different times and certainly not with their neighbors every time.

George Washington was the first American President to proclaim an official Thanksgiving holiday during his administration. He did so in 1789.

Thomas Jefferson was adamantly opposed to such an observance and other Presidents did not make Thanksgiving an official holiday until Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation in 1863.

Whether Lincoln did so of his own accord or whether he gave in to a long-time campaign will never be known. Every President who succeeded him followed his example and the date he set —the last Thursday in November— became a matter of custom.

Not much credit has been given to the lady who was responsible for it becoming a national holiday. Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Boston Ladies Magazine and later Godey’s Lady’s Book, began a campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1823 and kept working on it for 40 years.

She started her campaign in 1823 and kept it up until President Lincoln issued his proclamation in 1863, which made the observance official.

Although succeeding presidents issued formal proclamations of the holiday, they designated the last Thursday in November as the date of observance each year simply as a matter of custom.

That lasted from 1863 until 1940 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a Thanksgiving proclamation making the third Thursday in November the day of observance. Times were tough then, and Roosevelt changed the date to give all the merchants in the United States a longer Christmas shopping season. At that time, Christmas shopping, while important, unofficially started the day after Thanksgiving.

Despite Roosevelt’s good intentions there was such a hullabaloo over the change that Congress took matters into its own hands and passed legislation which made the fourth Thursday in November Thanksgiving Day in the United States for 1941 and every year thereafter.

And that’s how it happened.

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