Thanksgiving: A History & Reflection

Curt-lineby Curt Kovener
Americans don’t know it and children aren’t taught it, but George Washington is responsible for our Thanksgiving holiday. It was our first president who led the charge to make this day of thanks a truly national event—not the Pilgrims and not Abraham Lincoln.
On October 3, 1789, (the same year our constitution was enacted as you constitutional scholars already know) George Washington issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation, designating for “the People of the United States a day of public thanks giving” to be held on “Thursday the 26th day of November,” 1789, marking the first national celebration of a holiday that has become commonplace in today’s households.
The proclamation was printed in newspapers, including the October 9, 1789 issue of the Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser.
While subsequent presidents failed to maintain this tradition, it was Washington’s original Proclamation that guided Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation. In fact, Lincoln issued his proclamation on the same day, October 3, and marked the same Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, November 26, as Washington, setting Thanksgiving as the last Thursday of November after our first president’s example.
George Washington first mentioned the possibility of a national Thanksgiving Day in a confidential letter to James Madison in August 1789 (just months after taking office), asking for his advice on approaching the Senate for their opinion on “a day of thanksgiving.” By the end of September 1789, a resolution had been introduced to the House of Representatives requesting that “a joint committee of both Houses be directed to wait upon the President of the United States, to request that he would recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving.” The committee put the resolution before the president and George Washington issued the first national Thanksgiving Proclamation within days.
Washington knew the value of a thanksgiving day long before becoming our first president. During the Revolutionary War, he would order special thanksgiving services for his troops after successful battles, as well as publicly endorse efforts by the Continental Congress to proclaim days of thanks, usually in recognition of military victories and alliances. The concept of thanksgiving was not new to the citizens of the new United States. Colonists even before the Pilgrims often established Thank Days to mark certain occasions. These one-time events could occur at any time of the year and were usually more solemn than the Thanksgiving we observe today, emphasizing prayer and spiritual reflection.
Thanksgiving was not made a legal holiday until 1941 when Congress named the fourth Thursday in November as our national day of thanks in answer to public outcry over President Roosevelt’s attempt to prolong the Christmas shopping season by moving Thanksgiving from the traditional last Thursday to the third Thursday of November.
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We received an uplifting note from a subscriber which is passed along for your encouragement.
The day following Thanksgiving is known in the business sector as “Black Friday”—the heavy shopping day that many retail outlets finally get into the black on their financial statement.
The note we received read:
“It was Nov. 29, 1963, the day after Thanksgiving in Youngstown, Ohio where I was managing the Santa Photo Shop at our biggest department store. Soon after opening that morning, we had a long line of harried parents—their faces touched with sadness over President Kennedy’s assassination a week earlier—and their young children, who couldn’t wait for their turn with Santa. The line stretched from Santa’s chair through the toy department and to the elevator doors. The parents were impatient to get on with their shopping, Santa was doing his best, without shortchanging any child.
At one point the elevator doors opened, and a young boy in a wheelchair exited, pushed by his elderly grandfather. The man looked at the long line and asked, “Should we come back another day, Johnny?”
The boy’s disappointment was obvious, but before he could respond, a young girl at the end of the line spoke up, “You can get in front of me,”
The grandfather was touched by the child’s generosity, thanked her and wheeled Johnny in front of her.
Then the next child in line spoke up, “Here, get in front of me.” This happened again and again as one child after another gave up a place in line. I heard no complaints from the parents as their children chose to wait a bit longer for their turn.
I sincerely hope those children got an extra gift from Santa that year. I’m certain they each earned a smile from their God.
Shopping the day after Thanksgiving, you just might run smack up against the Spirit of the Season.”
A simple act of kindness, and yet those are the most memorable.