You may be wondering what a children’s nursery rhyme has to do with the Thanksgiving holiday tradition. It was the author of that little ditty, Sarah Josepha Hale, who launched a letter-writing campaign to have Thanksgiving declared a national holiday. Finally, in 1862, at the height of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving Day official.
Let’s rewind and go back in history to a colony at Plymouth in New England. The first winter for the crew and passengers of the Mayflower was a brutal one, only half surviving to see the spring of 1621. After a successful first harvest, the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians held a three-day festival to celebrate. Many think of this as the first Thanksgiving, but throughout history a day of thanksgiving has been celebrated in some form or another, and history shows that this particular event may not even have been the first celebration of its kind in the colonies by early settlers. The actual roots of celebrating a bountiful harvest go all the way back to ancient times. Annual fall festivals have been observed by many cultures, including the Native Americans, long before Europeans arrived.
It wasn’t until 1789 that George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation for Americans to take a day to give thanks for the conclusion of the American Revolutionary War and ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America. Years later in 1817, New York was the first of several states to adopt an official annual Thanksgiving Day holiday, but it was celebrated on different days. And all that changed when President Lincoln declared the last Thursday to be the day America would give thanks.
Thanksgiving Day also became the traditional start of holiday season and, on November 27, 1924, a New York City department store held the first Macy’s Christmas Parade – soon to be known as Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade – featuring Macy’s employees and animals from the Central Park Zoo. Three years later Tony Sarg, a children’s book illustrator and puppeteer, designed the first giant hot air balloons that have become a hallmark of the parade. To this day, Snoopy has floated along the route more times than any other character balloon.
On Thanksgiving Day in 1934 and in front of 26,000 fans, the Detroit Lions hosted the Chicago Bears at the University of Detroit stadium. It was broadcast by NBC radio to the rest of the nation and another American tradition began. In 1956, fans watched the game on television for the very first time.
During the Great Depression in 1939, Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week, hoping to spur retail sales. It was known as “Franksgiving” and was met with tremendous opposition by the American people. By 1941, the President caved to popular demand and signed a bill making Thanksgiving Day the fourth Thursday in November.
Another Thanksgiving tradition started by President George Bush has become an annual duty granting a pardon to a deserving turkey (or two). Rather than being stuffed to grace a dinner table, the bird is instead sent to a farm to do whatever it is turkeys do in retirement. Canasta, maybe?
Regardless of whether you prefer turkey or ham, or vegetarian dishes, the day is for giving thanks however you choose to celebrate it. We gather with family and friends to enjoy good food, share in the joy, and show gratefulness for each and every day we are given.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone.