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Who Decided Thanksgiving?

As I bake cornbread to make dressing for Thanksgiving dinner at our house, I’m thankful someone else planned the menu and set the date. But who created the menu? Who decided November?

Research led me away from the Thanksgiving story I learned as a child. Historians say it is possible the colonists and Wampanoag Indians, who had lived for thousands of years where the Pilgrims settled, ate a meal together in 1621. But the main meat was probably venison, and more than likely there were races and shooting contests and festivities that lasted at least three days.

George Washington declared a Thanksgiving holiday November 1789, but it was for only that year and wasn’t connected to the Pilgrim feast. He intended the day as a time of “public thanksgiving and prayer” and devoted 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.”

Thanksgiving wasn’t official until 1863 and it was a woman who came up with the idea for an annual holiday. Sarah Josepha Hale edited an influential women’s magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book, for forty years from 1837-1877. Hale was an education advocate, a writer, a patriot, and through the magazine she set trends in fashion, reading, and cooking.

When Hale read about the possible 1621 Pilgrim feast, she became determined to turn it into a national holiday. The Godey’s Lady’s Book published recipes for turkey and stuffing and pumpkin pie which started food traditions. To gain public support to make Thanksgiving an official annual holiday, she wrote an editorial every year beginning in 1846, and she sent letters to all the United States governors, senators, the president, and other politicians.

Finally, in 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln set the fourth Thursday as the day to celebrate Thanksgiving. In his proclamation, he pleaded that all Americans ask God to “commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” and to “heal the wounds of the nation.”

So Sarah Joespha Hale gets credit for the tradition of my family gathering around the dining room table and our Thanksgiving menu. And Abraham Lincoln set the date that hasn’t changed in 154 years, except for two years 1939-1940, when Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week in hopes of spurring retail sales during the Great Depression. The change met such opposition that he signed a bill in 1941 to return Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday.

I appreciate that both Washington and Lincoln made religious statements when they declared Thanksgiving Day. Washington intended a time for public thanksgiving and praying to “that great and glorious Being.” Lincoln encouraged Americans to ask God to care for people and the nation.

And I’m glad Hale was determined that Thanksgiving be an annual holiday and created a menu of turkey, cornbread dressing, and pumpkin pie. I can’t imagine eating anything different on the fourth Thursday in November.

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One Response

  1. Happy Thanksgiving…enjoy! Very thankful for you and yours! Kat & Bob

    Kat Rust Bobkatsr@gmail.com

    >

    Like

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