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In 1621, the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast that is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies. For more than two centuries, days of thanksgiving were celebrated by individual colonies and states.
It wasn't until October 1777 that all 13 colonies celebrated day of Thanksgiving.
The very first national day of Thanksgiving was held in 1789, when President George Washington proclaimed Thursday, Nov. 26, to be "a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness."
Though a national day of Thanksgiving was declared in 1789, Thanksgiving was not an annual celebration.
We owe the modern concept of Thanksgiving to poet and editor, Sarah Josepha Hale. Hale wrote the famous nursery rhyme, "Mary Had a Little Lamb," and was editor of "Godey's Lady's Book." She spent 40 years advocating for a national, annual Thanksgiving holiday.
In the years leading up to the Civil War, she saw the holiday as a way to infuse hope and belief in the nation and the constitution. So, when the United States was torn in half during the Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln was searching for a way to bring the nation together, he discussed the matter with Hale.
On Oct. 3, 1863, Lincoln issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation that declared the last Thursday in November (based on Washington's date) to be a day of "thanksgiving and praise."
For the first time, Thanksgiving became a national, annual holiday with a specific date.
For 75 years after Lincoln issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation, succeeding presidents honored the tradition and annually issued their own Thanksgiving Proclamation, declaring the last Thursday in November as the day of Thanksgiving.
However, in 1939, during the Great Depression, the date of Thanksgiving was scheduled to be Nov. 30.
Retailers complained to President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) that this only left 24 shopping days to Christmas and begged him to push Thanksgiving just one week earlier. It was determined that most people do their Christmas shopping after Thanksgiving and retailers hope that with an extra week of shopping, people would buy more.
When FDR announced his Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1939, he declared the date of Thanksgiving to be Thursday, Nov. 23, the second-to-last Thursday of the month.
The new date for Thanksgiving caused a lot of confusion. Calendars were now incorrect. Schools who had planned vacations and tests now had to reschedule. Thanksgiving had been a big day for football games, as it is today, so the game schedule had to be examined.
Before 1939, governors followed the president in officially proclaiming the same day as Thanksgiving for their state. In 1939, many governors did not agree with FDR's decision to change the date and refused to follow him. The country became split on which Thanksgiving they should observe.
Twenty-three states followed FDR's change. Twenty-three other states disagreed with FDR and kept the traditional date for Thanksgiving. Two states, Colorado and Texas, decided to honor both dates.
This idea of two Thanksgiving days split some families because not everyone had the same day off work.
Did it work?
The answer was no. Businesses reported that the spending was approximately the same but the distribution of the shopping was changed.
For those states who celebrated the earlier Thanksgiving date, the shopping was evenly distributed throughout the season. For those states that kept the traditional date, businesses experienced a bulk of shopping in the last week before Christmas.
In 1940, FDR again announced Thanksgiving to be the second-to-last Thursday of the month. This time, 31 states followed him with the earlier date and 17 kept the traditional date. Confusion over two Thanksgivings continued.
Lincoln established the Thanksgiving holiday to bring the country together, but the confusion over the date change was tearing it apart. On Dec. 26, 1941, Congress passed a law declaring that Thanksgiving would occur every year on the fourth Thursday of November.