Give Thanks for Thanksgiving Day! Part One: A Brief History

Last week the entire America celebrated Thanksgiving Day. The all-American holiday, the ultimate feast and family celebration. It might be one of the very few holidays when, no matter what the religion, race, provenience, ethnicity, or other social or cultural aspects, the families gather around the dinner table to consume a big bird, mashed potatoes, pies and other wonderful goodies.

Although, it hasn't been like that since its inception, these days Thanksgiving Day always falls on the forth Thursday of November (one week after mes amis en France open bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau), and it opens a holiday/shopping/feasting season in America. Established by the great Abraham Lincoln in 1863, it's been celebrated annually ever since. Proclaimed a national day of "Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens", it is still a national and one of the most important holidays for Americans, even though it has definitely lost its original religious raison d'être and exists for most of the people as a secular family event.

So what is the genesis of the celebration, how has it all started? A little bit of history... What Americans call the "First Thanksgiving" was a feast celebrated in 1621 by 53 Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans at the Plymouth Plantation after their first successful harvest (that they very much owed to the Indians who showed them how to grow corn and catch eel). As it was a tradition for the Pilgrims to "give thanks to God" after major events before they colonized the New World, it was natural for them to bring it with them and continue once they settled down in America. It was a predecessor to the Thanksgiving Day as we know it: it started as an after-harvest religious celebration that lasted for three days, and evolved into a secular, pan-American, civil, feasting tradition (that lasts for three days for some people, when you eat so much on the day that you can't even move, let alone look at any other food or mounds of leftovers, for the next two :-)).

It's been documented, though, that the very first thanksgivings were celebrated by the Spaniards in the 16th century, and that it was a "routine service" in Jamestown, Virginia staring in 1610. After 38 English settlers arrived at the Berkeley Hundred, Virginia on December 4, 1619, they were supposed to celebrate a "day of thanksgiving" to God on the anniversary of their arrival. Other colonies followed suit in the next century or so for various reasons (successful return from a dangerous trips, military victory or bountiful crop), always as a way of giving thanks to God, though, for their successes.

The First National Proclamation of Thanksgiving was passed by the Continental Congress in 1777 (draft formulated by Samuel Adams). Later on, George Washington, then the leader of the American Revolutionary War, proclaimed a Thanksgiving Day in December of 1777, after the defeat of the British at Saratoga (still then, military reasons). As President, Washington proclaimed a Thanksgiving Day (he was requested to "recommend to the People of the United States 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") a couple of more times in (1789, 1795). Later on, some presidents declared thanksgiving days, and others didn't, until, eventually in 1863, when United, the States adopted it as their national/federal holiday under Abraham Lincoln to be celebrated annually on the last Thursday of November.

The road to today's quasi-uniform celebration was still bumpy for a few decades with the states trying to establish their traditions independently (choosing different foods, parades, days to celebrate). Even one president himself decided to break with Lincoln's resolution: during the Great Depression Roosevelt was advised by the founder of what is today's Macy's that earlier Thanksgiving (on the third Thursday) will give merchandisers more time to sell goods before Christmas, especially that it was inappropriate to advertise those before Thanksgiving. Tricky move! That led, of course, to another Republican/Democrat war: the former argued that it was disrespectful to the memory of Lincoln and decided to celebrate their November 30th "Republican Thanksgiving" inline with his proclamation (which 23 states followed), while the latter with 22 other states chose November 23rd for "Democratic Thanksgiving", or "Franksgiving". Texas couldn't decide and celebrated both, while football players having their finals usually on Thanksgiving Day, had to succumb to the preset schedule.

It wasn't until 1941 when both houses of Congress passed a joint resolution fixing the date nationally for the final Thursday of November. It had to be amended by the Senate soon after to finish with the ambivalence and to have it finally become the forth Thursday, which eventually ended the forth/last Thursday of November Thanksgiving wars, made everyone's life easier and definitely thankful for this clever compromise of national importance!

Part 2 and 3 of the Thanksgiving series will be full of fleshy, juicy, feasty, appetizing, delicious, fun, colorful and peaceful details... No more dry facts, let's move on to the FOOD, and entertainment: PARADES and SPORTS!