Thanksgiving is America’s only holiday invention and it may, in fact, be its most sacred. While the Christmas season is marked by repeated debates of “church vs. state” Thanksgiving is the only day of the year when American leadership calls for citizens to pray and actually acknowledges God.
Anyone who grew up watching Charlie Brown and the Peanuts or attending public schools in the United States know of Thanksgiving’s early origins on the American continent.
Fasting, prayer and days of feasting and thanksgiving were among the first seasonal observances celebrated by the pilgrims and puritans of ancient American history. Their well-documented fight for survival frequently invoked the name of God.
While most historians cite the first Thanksgiving in 1621 in early Virginia settlements the truth is that many Thanksgiving celebrations were held dating back to 1578 by European explorers and settlers who had come to the shores of North America.
The tradition of Thanksgiving carried over during the Revolutionary War when the Continental Congress declared a national day of Thanksgiving for the first time in 1777.
The declaration of 1777 could not be more plain: The purpose of their thanksgiving was “…that at one time and with one voice, the good people may express the grateful feelings of their hearts, and consecrate themselves to the service of their Divine Benefactor”.
Later, President George Washington declared the first national day of Thanksgiving in 1789, a first for the United State of America. Similar declarations were made by John Adams in 1798 and 1799 and by several states for generations thereafter.
In 1863, following a series of articles by Sarah Josepha Hale in a campaign that lasted more than 35 years, President Lincoln declared a national day of Thanksgiving on the final Thursday in November, starting a tradition that continues to this day.
Thanksgiving has a traditional as a national holiday that is “proclaimed” every year by the president of the United States. Lincoln’s proclamation plainly acknowledges the hand of God:
“…I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, 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…”
Lincoln’s successors as president followed his example of proclaiming Thanksgiving with equally effusive praise of God and calls to prayer.
As a contrast, Christmas has never had any kind of such treatment by the US president or by Congress. There are no proclamations and no acknowledgement of God in relation to Christmas by the government. The law mandating Christmas as a national holiday was in response to a labor dispute with federal workers, who demanded Christmas off to match the tradition of their private sector counterparts.
Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November every year to be Thanksgiving. That has mostly been the tradition followed by every president.
But in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt broke with this tradition. November had five Thursdays that year (instead of the usual four), and Roosevelt declared the fourth Thursday as Thanksgiving rather than the fifth one. In 1940 and 1941, years in which November had four Thursdays, he declared the third one as Thanksgiving. Roosevelt thought an earlier Thanksgiving would give merchants a longer period to sell goods before Christmas. Congress stepped up in 1941 and passed a resolution making the 4th Thursday Thanksgiving permanently.
In Canada, the tradition of Thanksgiving, like America, was born of European immigrants.
The first Thanksgiving there had nothing to do with the harvest, however. It was held in observance of surviving an exploring venture by Martin Frobisher, who overcame great trauma while searching for the Northwest Passage 1578. Though occasional observances of Thanksgiving are noted in Canadian history it too did not come into annual practice until 1879, after American citizens loyal to the British crown brought the American tradition of Thanksgiving to Canada, where it was adopted into law.