Ask any American grade schooler about pilgrims, and the responses will likely contain the name of a ship called the Mayflower. The story about settlers landing in Plymouth after sailing across the Atlantic Ocean is part of the American origin story. Also part of this story is the first American Thanksgiving, a fall feast celebrating the cooperation between the pilgrims and the local indigenous peoples.
Thanksgiving Becomes Official
While much of the story about America's first Thanksgiving is exaggerated, the events leading up to George Washington's Thanksgiving day proclamation are factual. By 1789 President Washington and the rest of the young United States felt secure enough to start thinking about the future. Thus, President Washington proclaimed November 26, 1789, as a national day of thanks.
Lincoln Adds To The Holiday
After that 1789 proclamation, Americans responded with enthusiasm as they started celebrating Thanksgiving. But the dates vary by region, family, and culture as the country hurled toward civil war. President Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday of November as the national day of thanks more than fifty years after Washington's Proclamation. President Lincoln harkened back to President Washington's appeal for American unity. Indeed, the 1789 proclamation contains words like "union" and "freedom," as both Presidents understood the value of uniting for a cause in the wake of potential failure.
Roosevelt and The Thanksgiving We Celebrate Today
Post-Civil War America celebrated Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November until 1941, when President Roosevelt signed a law that made the 4th Thursday in November the official date. Since 1880, Thanksgiving had been a federal holiday because of the Holidays Act. However, the official day for celebrating Thanksgiving wasn't established for more than a century later.
Why did President Washington and Congress pick the 4th Thursday of the month? Everyone agreed the date gave Americans enough time to prepare for Christmas. It seems President Roosevelt saw the potential for an additional week of shopping and the ever-popular Black Friday.