What does the nursey rhyme "Mary had a Little Lamb" have to do with the Battle of Gettysburg and Black Friday? All three are directly related to the history of Thanksgiving.
Many people assume that Thanksgiving has remained the same since that first meeting between the Wampanoag Native American tribe and the Pilgrims. It hasn't. The truth is, if not for a few incredibly important events, we would not celebrate one of the most American holidays at all.
George Washington was the first President to have an official Thanksgiving, as approved by Congress in 1777, but it was not yet the annual celebration that we know it as today. In 1789, Washington called for a day of Thanksgiving in celebration of the newly formed United States.
John Adams followed the tradition.
But Thomas Jefferson, as third President, felt that Thanksgiving violated the separation of church and state. Presidents upheld this view until 1863, the third year of the Civil War. The same year as the Battle of Gettysburg. The year that more than 100,000 soldiers died in the fight between the North and the South.
In part we can thank novelist and poet Sarah Josepha Hale, the woman who wrote "Mary had a Little Lamb" for making Thanksgiving the holiday that it is. For twenty years, Hale maintained a letter-writing campaign to have Thanksgiving recognized as a national holiday. She wrote letters to 5 presidents and many more governors. Nobody responded.
Then came April 12, 1861, the beginning of the Civil War. Hale saw the need for a national day of thanksgiving as more important than ever before. She believed that it could bring our divided country back together.
A couple years later, one of Sarah Hale's letters landed on President Lincoln's desk. Days later, on October 3, 1863, in honor of the Union's victory at Gettysburg, Lincoln declared that the final Thursday of November be observed indefinitely as a national holiday of Thanksgiving.
In this 1863 proclamation, Lincoln called on Americans "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 Prayer to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens."
The proclamation was also published several weeks later in Harper's Weekly on October 17, 1863.
Harold Holzer, historian and chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation describes Lincoln as "the father of the whole idea of a nation giving thanks for its advantages and privileges of living in a democracy like this," he said.
The proclamation offers a number of reasons to be thankful:
The civil war that so recently closed among us has not been anywhere reopened; foreign intervention has ceased to excite alarm or apprehension; intrusive pestilence has been benignly mitigated; domestic tranquility has improved, sentiments of conciliation have largely prevailed, and affections of loyalty and patriotism have been widely renewed; our fields have yielded quite abundantly, our mining industry has been richly rewarded, and we have been allowed to extend our railroad system far into the interior recesses of the country, while our commerce has resumed its customary activity in foreign seas. These great national blessings demand a national acknowledgment.
Following Lincoln's proclamation, Thanksgiving was still by no means the reliable holiday that we know it as today. It had no permanent fixed date, and it was often up to state governors whether or not any given state would celebrate the holiday.
During the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to the third Thursday of November, in order to encourage shopping the following day—in other words, FDR created Black Friday.
Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to the third Thursday of November, in order to encourage shopping the following day—in other words, FDR created Black Friday.
It wasn't until 1942, however, that Congress passed a law that made Thanksgiving an official holiday nationwide, celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November.
Thanksgiving has itself undergone a uniquely American struggle, and, in doing so, revealed its own distinctly American spirit. We are lucky that it has outlasted those struggles, and it is important to be thankful for the very holiday that designates a day for gratitude, a day of thanksgiving.