Straight Dope on how modern Thanksgiving was invented.
Thanksgiving as we know it today–at least on the scale we know it–is largely the creation of Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, one of the first women’s magazines. Mrs. Hale spent 36 years browbeating public officials high and low before finally getting Thanksgiving declared a national holiday in 1863.
But first a little history. What we now think of as the original Thanksgiving took place in the fall of 1621 at the Plymouth colony in Massachusetts, with the Pilgrims and some 90 Wampanoag Indians on hand to chow down, play volleyball, and exchange native diseases. (No joke–an earlier tribe of Indians had been wiped out by European-imported smallpox.) The occasion came to be a semiofficial holiday among New Englanders, one of many such celebrations held throughout the colonies at various times of the year.
The idea of holding a national Thanksgiving, however, was slow to catch on. The Continental Congress scheduled the first one for Thursday, December 18, 1777, to celebrate the defeat of General Burgoyne at Saratoga. In 1789 George Washington proclaimed a one-time-only day of thanksgiving for Thursday, November 26, to celebrate the new Constitution.
But his successors let the idea drop. Thomas Jefferson, for one, considered proclaiming holidays “a monarchical practice” and paid no attention to Thanksgiving during his term of office.
Enter Mrs. Hale. A native of New Hampshire, she became obsessed with the idea that “Thanksgiving like the Fourth of July should be considered a national festival by all our people.” Her opening salvo was her first novel, Northwood, published in 1827. An entire chapter was devoted to a detailed description of a Thanksgiving dinner complete with stuffed turkey and pumpkin pie.
In 1846, nine years after she became the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, she launched a crusade to make Thanksgiving an official holiday. Every fall the magazine would editorialize on the subject, meanwhile running high-cholesterol but probably pretty darn tasty recipes for such things as “Indian Pudding with Frumenty sauce” and “ham soaked in cider three weeks, stuffed with sweet potatoes, and baked in maple syrup.” Mrs. Hale also wrote hundreds of letters to influential people urging them to support her cause.
Her efforts continued up through the Civil War. In 1861 she asked both sides to “lay aside our enmities on this one day and join in a Thanksgiving Day of Peace.” The appeal failed, but eventually, some believe, she was able to pitch President Lincoln in person. Whatever the case, Abe finally issued a National Thanksgiving Proclamation on October 3, 1863, setting aside the last Thursday of November as the official day.
Thanksgiving continued to be proclaimed annually by the president this way until 1939, when Franklin Roosevelt blithely declared that Thanksgiving that year was going to take place on the third Thursday of November. Crass commercialism was the chief consideration–FDR hoped to woo retailers, who complained that they needed more time to “make proper provision for the Christmas rush” and incidentally cram in a few more shopping days.
FDR’s move outraged Republicans and quite a few football coaches throughout the country, who claimed that not only was FDR trampling on sacred national traditions, he was screwing up the bowl game schedule. For two years, people celebrated Thanksgiving on one of two different days, depending on their political inclinations. In 1941, however, Congress got into the act by officially declaring that Thanksgiving would thenceforward fall on the fourth Thursday of November.
Two weeks later FDR declared World War II. And you thought NIXON was a sore loser.