Whichever story of the origin of Thanksgiving you choose to accept as most valid, the day has been a US holiday for all of our lifetimes. It's celebrated on the 4th Thursday of November, although President Franklin Roosevelt moved it up a week for a few years to lenghten the Christmas shopping season.
Jennifer Baker of the Vesuvius Furnace Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution compiled the following about the first Thanksgiving celebrated in the United States when ours was a new country. It's this week's article (the 28th) in our series of articles from the SAR & DAR leading up to the celebration of America's 250th birthday, now less than five years away.
The American colonies were familiar with setting aside days of thanksgiving, prayer, and fasting in response to significant events. President George Washington issued a proclamation designating November 26, 1789 as a “National Day of Thanksgiving” to recognize the role of providence in creating the new United States and the new federal Constitution.
Americans traditionally recognize the "first" Thanksgiving as having taken place at Plymouth in 1621 at the autumn harvest as a way of thanking God for their blessings. Invited to their observance were members of the neighboring Wampanoag tribe, who also shared a similar type of harvest celebration. This 1621 thanksgiving celebration did not become an annual event; rather, residents of Plymouth and the other colonies held days of thanksgiving and fasting over the years, at different times of year for a variety of reasons.
During the American Revolution, the practice continued. Colonial legislatures set aside days of prayer to recognize military victories against the British army. After British General John Burgoyne surrendered to the Americans at Saratoga, New York, in October 1777, the Continental Congress suggested that a national day be set aside to recognize the victory.
It was 240 years ago that delegates Samuel Adams, Daniel Roberdeau, and Richard Henry Lee completed their writing assignment. They delivered a proclamation of gratitude to God in this gloomy time in the Revolutionary War. The recipient was the group of statesmen who had handed them the assignment – the Continental Congress. They recommended that the Congress set aside a day for thanksgiving and praise to recognize the Continental Army's badly needed win against the British in the Battle of Saratoga.
Congress approved the First National Thanksgiving Proclamation, written in Samuel Adams' hand, which established Dec. 18, 1777, as the day of observance. Commander of the Continental Army, General George Washington agreed. Many in the 13 states observed the occasion, the first of seven such days proclaimed in the war.
In 1789, Representative Elias Boudinot of New Jersey presented a resolution requesting that Congress persuade the now-President Washington to declare a thanksgiving observance in honor of the creation of the new United States Constitution. Congress agreed and passed the resolution creating a joint committee to make their request to the president.
Washington issued a proclamation on October 3, 1789, designating Thursday, November 26 as a “National Day of Thanks”. In his proclamation, Washington declared that the necessity for such a day sprung from the Almighty’s care of Americans prior to the Revolution, assistance to them in achieving independence, and help in establishing the constitutional government. Not ignoring the authority of state governments, Washington distributed his proclamation to the governors, requesting that they announce and observe the day within their states. Newspapers throughout the country subsequently published the proclamation and public celebrations were held. Washington himself marked the day by attending services at St. Paul's Chapel in New York City, and by donating beer and food to imprisoned debtors in the city.
The 1789 Thanksgiving Proclamation, however, did not establish a permanent federal holiday. Washington issued another proclamation in February 1795 to recognize the defeat of a taxation rebellion in Pennsylvania. Later, Presidents John Adams and James Madison declared “Days of Thanksgiving," but it was not a nationally celebrated holiday until President Lincoln initiated a regular observance of Thanksgiving in the United States in the early days of the Civil War.