Thanksgiving is a Holiday Rooted in Traditions

Fall is the traditional time in the northern hemisphere to
celebrate God’s blessings and express gratitude for successful
 Such harvest festivals are celebrated around the world.
Fall is the traditional time in the northern hemisphere to celebrate God’s blessings and express gratitude for successful harvests. Such harvest festivals are celebrated around the world. For example, in China (the mid-autumn or moon festival), India (Onam) and Sukkoth (by Jews everywhere). As one of our nation’s established religious holidays, Thanksgiving has had an interesting history. 

Students learn early that the first Thanksgiving celebration was held by the Plymouth Colony settlers in December of 1621. After their first successful harvest, the colonists invited members of the local Native American tribe, and the feasting lasted for days.

In succeeding years the holiday was observed only sporadically. Each colony (and later, state) followed its own whim as to when to celebrate a day of thanksgiving or whether to celebrate it at all.

In 1789, during his first year as President, George Washington proclaimed Thursday, Nov. 26, as a day to thank God “for all the great and various favors which he has been pleased to confer upon us.” 

And in that same year, the newly formed Episcopal Church (now  separated from the Church of England) included among the official Holy Days in its new prayer book the instruction: “In November the first Thursday shall be observed as a Day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the fruits of the earth and all other blessings of His merciful providence.”

But there was no real consistency in secular celebrations of Thanksgiving until a magazine editor, Sarah Josepha Hale, began a crusade in 1827 to establish a national day devoted to giving thanks to God. In 1862, Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation making Thanksgiving a national holiday, observed on the last day of November.  Lincoln’s choice became the traditional date until the Great Depression.

In 1939 a group of businessmen convinced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to move the day forward to the third Thursday, thereby creating a longer Christmas shopping season.  (How quaint that such shopping began  after Thanksgiving in those days!) 

When FDR chose the earlier date again the following year, Congress rebelled. A Joint Congressional Committee Resolution in 1941 permanently returned the observance to the fourth Thursday, and it is now a legal holiday in all states and U.S. possessions.

The Rev. Frank W. Schaefer, writing at, calls thankfulness “a lifestyle … and attitude of gratitude.” He mentions studies that “suggest that there may be a direct connection between an attitude of gratitude and one’s state of health.”  

TV talk-show host Oprah Winfrey brought this study to public awareness a few years ago when she suggested to her audience that “making a mental list of things we can be grateful for before going to sleep (and/or getting up in the morning) will have a very positive impact on a person’s life and health.”

While we attempt to cope with the normal stresses of our lives and the additional anxieties caused by a faraway war and terrorist threats around us, it might be helpful to heed Schaefer’s suggestion: “As we get into the harvest-theme decorations, the preparing of pumpkin pies and turkey stuffing and mashed potatoes, let us not only be people who know how to celebrate Thanksgiving once a year, but let us be Thanksgiving people – people who have an attitude of gratitude.

On Nov. 24, the Time Warner Cable Network will be presenting a Thanksgiving program documenting the challenges and joys of rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina. “The Episcopal Church Presents: Gulf Coast Thanksgivings” will also be available at as a Web cast.

Chuck Flagg teaches English at Mt. Madonna High School. Write to him at P.O. Box 22365, Gilroy, Calif. 95021.

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