History Column

Thanksgiving History

A holiday quiz: Which of the following contributed to the creation of America’s Thanksgiving holiday tradition(s)?

  1. Berkeley Company
  2. The Pilgrim
  3. George Washington
  4. Abraham Lincoln
  5. Calvin Coolidge
  6. Franklin D. Roosevelt

Question 2, chose one: In which year did the chrysanthemum become the traditional Thanksgiving flower?

  1. 1845
  2. 1905
  3. 1942

Each contributed to the Thanksgiving holiday tradition in his own special way. The country’s first day of Thanksgiving was held in 1619 by order of the Berkeley Company. The chrysanthemum, the “Mrs. Roosevelt” bloom became the traditional Thanksgiving flower in 1905.

The nation’s first day of Thanksgiving had a decidedly southern flair. “Wee Ordaine that the day of our ship [Margaret]’s arrivall at the place assigned for plantation [Berkeley] in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God,” The Berkeley Company ordered on December 4, 1619. “There, on the north shore of the James River, settlers, which included a young Episcopal clergyman, George Thorpe, followed these orders, knelt and held a thanksgiving service for their safe arrival.”

Today Berkeley Plantation, located halfway between Richmond and Williamsburg, is known as the “most historic plantation on the James River.” It includes a First Thanksgiving Shrine. It is also the 18th century home of Benjamin Harrison, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and his son President William Henry Harrison.

The Pilgrim’s Plymouth, Massachusetts day of Thanksgiving was held one year and seventeen days after Berkeley’s. The Mayflower anchored off Plymouth on December 21, 1620 and the celebration lasted three days. Special Assistant to President John F. Kennedy Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. apologized to Virginians for the Massachusetts-born Executive’s 1962 Thanksgiving proclamation. He acknowledged an “undeniable New England bias.”

The first presidential Proclamation of National Thanksgiving was issued on October 3, 1789, President George Washington’s inaugural year. “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.” Mount Vernon Estate, Museum & Gardens traditionally displays Washington’s 1789 Proclamation Thanksgiving Week.

“That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks, for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation, for…his providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war, for the great degree of tranquility, union and plenty, which we have since enjoyed, for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish…the national Constitution now lately instituted [and] for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed….” President Washington “assigned Thursday the 26th day of November” to be devoted “to the service of that great and glorious Being.”

“Being the day appointed for a thanksgiving I went to [New York City’s] St. Paul’s Chapel though it was most inclement and stormy—but few people [were] at Church,” Washington recorded. In celebration of the day, President Washington “contributed 7 pds. 10s. 4d. for ‘provisions and beer’ to prisoners confined for debt in the New York City Jail.”

Thanksgiving did not survive the federal era. It languished until antebellum merchants began advertising its benefits. In 1845, the same year the City of Washington issued its first official Thanksgiving proclamation, District merchants promoted “the availability of potables for the feast: ‘Sixty barrels of white wine, 40 barrels of champagne and New York cider, all by recent packet via the seaport of Alexandria.’” The local declaration wanted “to strengthen and preserve…our national union.”

New Hampshire’s Sarah Josepha Hale, the country’s first female magazine editor, begged President Abraham Lincoln to begin the Thanksgiving tradition again. She wrote: “Seventy years ago the political union of the United States was consummated…If every State was consummated…If every State should join in union thanksgiving…would it not be a renewed pledge of love and loyalty to the Constitution of the United States?”

Lincoln celebrated days of Thanksgiving. The President accepted the Lieber Code, his rules of civil war on May 24, 1863 only after designating April 30th as “a day of National humiliation, fasting and prayer [so] that our imperiled Nationality may be preserved.”

“Americans, both North and South, shared a common reverence for George Washington,” Lincoln scholar Gerald Prokopowicz said. Like Washington, Lincoln issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation on October 3, then assigned November 26 as the day of Thanksgiving.

“We…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.” Lincoln’s son Tad entered a “plea” on behalf of the live turkey and the White House bird was pardoned.

President Andrew Johnson continued Lincoln’s Thanksgiving tradition and eventually it became a customary holiday. President Calvin Coolidge broadcast the first coast-to-coast Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1927. He spoke “over a huge radio chain…to personally appeal to the country to observe the festival.”

Then the Great Depression came. In 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt entered his third term, America was planning for world war, and the economy needed a boost. President Roosevelt, using a “rabbit trick,” chose to extend Christmas sales by moving Thanksgiving forward a week. Congress cried foul and in 1942 Thanksgiving became a federally recognized holiday; every fourth Thursday in November just as before.

This November 27th enjoy a traditional day of Thanksgiving. “It is eminently fitting that once a year our people should set apart a day of praise and thanksgiving to the Giver of Good….,” President Theodore Roosevelt said in 1905. From Roosevelt’s 1905 Inaugural, James 1:22-23: “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.”


Black Friday, cyber Monday will come soon enough.


Written by: Sarah Becker © 2014
Email: abitofhistory53@gmail.com

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