Though the history of a “thanksgiving day” can be traced back to 1789 when George Washington declared Thursday, November 26th as a day when “we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks . . .” there was no national agreement on a day for the event. Prior to that, from 1777 to 1783, Thanksgiving Day, by Congressional mandate, was celebrated in December.
After a five-year break with no celebration, Washington”s proclamation revived the holiday and moved it to November. Other Presidents declared various days of Thanksgiving and one, James Madison, actually declared two in the year 1815; however, none of these occasions were in the fall of the year.
Thanksgiving Day Becomes a National Holiday
The idea of a national day of Thanksgiving did not occur again until 1863. President Lincoln, following decisive wins by the Union armies at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in the summer of that year, issued a declaration making the fourth Thursday in November, a National Day of Thanksgiving. Even at that late date, the holiday was not universally accepted, particularly in the South, where it was viewed as another Yankee event that further eroded their way of life. By the late nineteenth century, however, the New England harvest festival, which evolved into Thanksgiving Day, was celebrated nationwide.
Thanksgiving Pilgrim Myths
As mentioned earlier, one of the greatest myths of Thanksgiving concerns the role of the Pilgrims. The colonists who established the Plymouth Colony did not refer to themselves as Pilgrims. Their self-descriptive title was “Separatists,” denoting their theological break with the Church of England. The actual use of the word “pilgrim” appears to have been a use of literary license by latter day historians who felt the need to romanticize the event.
Though commonly viewed as Thanksgiving Day symbols, the association of Pilgrims and Native Americans with the holiday did not occur until the 1800s. As far as can be ascertained, the actual description of the 1621 feast was lost until a group of memoirs, including a description by Edward Winslow, one of the Plymouth Colony”s leaders, was rediscovered sometime in the 1820s.
Winslow”s description of the celebration, entitled Mourts Relation (1622), gives an idea of what happened at that meal:
“Many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest, their greatest King Massasoil, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted . . . “It wasn”t until 1841 that writer Alexander Young linked that harvest celebration with the American Thanksgiving.In the early 1900s, when illustrations of those early settlers and their Native American neighbors became commonplace, these images became forever intertwined as icons for Thanksgiving. Even today it is as unthinkable to celebrate Thanksgiving Day without thoughts of Pilgrims as it is to have Thanksgiving Dinner without turkey!