As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, November 18, 2018.
What’s your favorite holiday?
That’s a question my brothers and I asked each other as kids.
Christmas topped our lists, of course. How could any day compete with December 25 and the presents it brought?
If Thanksgiving ever received an honorable mention, it was for its one advantage over Christmas – you didn’t have to go to church!
Like most of our neighbors in the Elmhurst section of Providence, we celebrated Turkey Day in secular fashion, with family, football, and food. Watching the Macy’s parade on TV, I was unaware that our annual national feast had deep religious roots. But it does. The practice of observing prayer-filled days of thanksgiving, especially following good harvests, dates back to early American settlement communities.
On Oct. 3, 1789, George Washington issued his fledgling country’s first presidential Thanksgiving Proclamation. In it, he recommended that November 26 “be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.” Washington attended services at St. Paul’s Chapel in New York City that day. Then solemnity gave way to celebration, and the president provided the city’s imprisoned debtors with food and beer.
Presidents after Washington declared days of thanksgiving as well. According to the Plimouth Plantation Museum, by the 1850s almost every state and territory observed such celebrations, though not in any unified way. It wasn’t until Abraham Lincoln that our national day of gratitude was formalized, due in large part to the persistent advocacy of one Sarah Josepha Hale.
Hale, often referred to as the Godmother of Thanksgiving, was a successful editor and writer who began campaigning for the nationwide holiday in the 1830s. Her letter to Lincoln in September 1863 urged him to “have the day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival.” The appeal, on the heels of the North’s victory at Gettysburg, must have struck a chord with the president, who felt it was his sacred duty to preserve the Union.
On October 3, 1863 – exactly 74 years after Washington’s proclamation – Lincoln invited “fellow citizens in every part of the United States … to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
That timing remained unchanged until 1939 when November had five Thursdays, the last of which fell on the final day of the month. With the country still mired in the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week to the 23rd to lengthen the Christmas shopping season and, he hoped, spur retail sales. The change was not popular; 62 percent of Americans disapproved. The Republican mayor of Atlantic City, Thomas Taggert, criticized FDR for his action, derisively referring to the rescheduled holiday as “Franksgiving.”
A Commerce Department survey two years later reported that FDR’s brainchild had delivered little positive economic impact. Shortly afterward, a joint resolution of Congress, signed into law by the president, officially designated Thanksgiving Day as the fourth Thursday in November – importantly, not the last Thursday as Lincoln had prescribed, thereby ensuring the holiday would never again fall as late as the 29th or 30th.
But it’s Lincoln’s proclamation that gives one pause now. In his younger years, Honest Abe was considered a religious skeptic. By 1863, however, his evolving spiritualism moved him to “fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”
The great man from Illinois had offered up a prayer that many of us are saying, in our own ways, this Thanksgiving as well.