In elementary school, learning about Thanksgiving was a simple affair. We dressed up as pilgrims and Indians (probably in a politically incorrect manner), and sang about turkey and Indian corn. We were led to believe such a powwow occurred annually since the autumn of 1621, when the English settlers in Plymouth celebrated their plentiful harvest with the native Wampanoag tribe—the tribe who taught the pilgrims to fish, hunt, and grow crops on a land that was theirs for years. However, the official day of Thanksgiving wasn’t set for more than three hundred years after those festivities. Like most things in the history of our country, the birth of modern day Thanksgiving was not that simple—it was tangled and complex.
Although the events of 1621 are believed by many Americans to be the start of an annual tradition, the harvest celebration wasn’t meant to be repeated. In fact, on subsequent days the settlers devoted to giving thanks revolved around fasting, not eating, and were based in Puritan traditions.
In 1777, the Continental Congress stated that the thirteen colonies were to celebrate annually to give thanks for defeating the British at Saratoga. However, a fixed day for such celebrations was not made official. In 1789, President George Washington declared an official Thanksgiving holiday on November 26, but it still did not become an annual tradition.
Thanksgiving did not become an official holiday until 1863, thanks to a magazine editor named Sarah Josepha Hale. She believed that having an official day of thanks would create a more united country, and stop a civil war from breaking out. She wrote letters to the country’s leaders, and was eventually heard-President Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day. This marked the beginning of the modern holiday, but the celebration day did not remain set.
In 1939, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving up a week in order to give retailers a longer holiday season so that they could rake in more money. This decision was not accepted by all Americans, and in 1941, the president signed a bill that made Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday of November, which is where it stands today.
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