On Thursday, November 26, most of us will celebrate Thanksgiving. It is a paid federal holiday. All government offices and financial markets are closed. We will gather together with family and friends, eat turkey and other traditional foods, watch football games on TV, and enjoy a day off from work. Few of us will stop to think of the origins and meaning of the holiday. What is its meaning? What are its origins? Why is it celebrated at this time of the year? Read on for the answers.
Thanksgiving is a national holiday celebrated to give thanks for the year’s harvest. It has strong religious and cultural roots. Most people are aware that Thanksgiving is celebrated in the US (4th Thursday in November) and Canada (2nd Monday in October), but few of us are aware that variations of it are observed in other countries as well. In these other countries the holiday has a different meaning and purpose. For example, in Grenada it is celebrated on October 25, and it marks the date on which the US invaded the island in 1983 in response to the deposition and execution of Grenada’s then Prime Minister, Maurice Bishop. Liberia celebrates the holiday on the first Thursday of November, a tradition that was originated by freed American slaves that were transported there. In the Netherlands a Thanksgiving Day service is held on the morning of the US holiday. Its purpose is to commemorate the traditions of the Pilgrims, who resided in the city of Leiden for several years prior to their emigration to the New World. Japan celebrates a “Labor Thanksgiving Day” on November 23 to commemorate labor and production. It has its roots from the period of American occupation after WWII.
Like many of our traditions, Thanksgiving is rooted in English tradition. These date from the English Reformation in the 16th century and the reign of King Henry VIII. Apparently, the Protestant clergy had determined that events of misfortune or good fortune were attributable to God. Thus, unexpected disasters, such as droughts, floods or plagues, were followed by “Days of Fasting.” On the other hand, fortuitous events, such as a good harvest or the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, which was largely attributable to storms off the English coast, were to be celebrated by “giving thanks” to Him.
The origin of the Canadian holiday is uncertain, but it is most commonly attributed to the English explorer Martin Frobisher. He had been exploring Northern Canada seeking the infamous and elusive Northwest Passage to Asia. He wanted to give thanks for his party having survived the numerous storms and icebergs it had encountered on the long journey from England. Today, Thanksgiving is celebrated as a statutory holiday in most jurisdictions of Canada.
Most people trace the American Thanksgiving holiday to 1621 in present-day Massachusetts (although some claim that there were earlier celebrations by the Spaniards in present-day Florida circa 1565 and in the colony of Virginia circa 1610). The Pilgrims and Puritans living there had enjoyed a bountiful harvest that year and wanted to give thanks. Their harvest had been partly attributable to assistance from Native Americans, so they invited them to share in their celebration. Records indicate that there were 90 Native Americans and 25 colonists in attendance. The actual date is uncertain, but it is believed to have been between September 21 and November 11.
Prior to 1942, Thanksgiving was not celebrated as an official national holiday. Rather, it was celebrated periodically by proclamation. For example, during the Revolutionary War the Continental Congress established days of “prayer, humiliation and thanksgiving” each year. In 1777 George Washington proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving to celebrate the colonists’ victory at Saratoga. Following independence, various Presidents continued the practice of issuing proclamations periodically.
In 1863 President Lincoln proclaimed a national “Thanksgiving Day” to be celebrated on the last Thursday of November. Historians believe that his action was prompted by a series of editorials written by Sarah Josepha Hale, a writer and editor of some reknown. (She wrote the popular nursery rhyme, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”) The practice of annual Presidential Proclamations continued until 1939. That year, FDR broke the tradition. November had five Thursdays that year instead of the usual four. FDR figured that if the holiday were celebrated on the 4th Thursday it would provide a much-needed boost to the economy by enabling merchants to sell more goods before Christmas. (Even then, Thanksgiving was the unofficial start of the Christmas holiday shopping season.) Typically, this action precipitated a spat between the GOP and Dems in Congress. GOP congressmen viewed it as an insult to President Lincoln and continued to consider the last Thursday to be the holiday, so there were two Thanksgiving celebrations in 1939, 1940 and 1941, a “Democratic” one on the 4th Thursday and a “Republican” one on the last Thursday. The individual states split the dates (only in America!). Finally, in 1941 everyone got in sync. On December 26, 1941 FDR signed a bill into law that decreed that Thanksgiving would be celebrated on the 4th Thursday of November, a practice that has continued to this day.
Beginning in 1947, the National Turkey Federation has presented a live turkey to the President. Over the years it became customary for the President to grant a “pardon” to the turkey.
Many businesses are closed on Friday as well, which has had the effect of expanding the holiday into a four-day weekend. This weekend is one of the busiest travel days of the year, as anyone who has been on the roads or at the airports during this time can attest. The Friday after the holiday is known as “Black Friday.” It is one of the busiest shopping days of the year and signals the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. Many retail stores open early and offer sales. Some shoppers love this and camp out overnight; others deride it as a “fool’s errand.” Saturday is known as “Small Business Saturday,” which is an attempt to encourage patronage of small businesses. The Monday after the holiday is known as “Cyber Monday,” which encourages shopping on-line. The Tuesday after is called “Giving Tuesday” to encourage donations to the needy. The holiday is a prime time for charity. Many communities have food and clothing drives to collect items for distribution to the poor.
Many cities hold parades. The NYC “Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade” is a longstanding tradition. Many families have attended this every year for generations. It features floats with specific themes, such as Broadway shows, cartoon characters, celebrities and high school marching bands. The last float is traditionally one of Santa Claus, which symbolizes the beginning of the Christmas season. Other examples of cities that hold parades are Detroit, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Plymouth, MA, and Houston.
Many of us watch football. High schools and colleges play traditional games against their chief rivals. The NFL has staged a football game on Thanksgiving Day every year since 1934. At first, there was only one that was hosted by the Detroit Lions. Currently, there are three. Even basketball has gotten into the act. There are college tournaments and NBA games. For non-sports fans there are a plethora of TV specials with a Thanksgiving or Christmas theme.
So, now that you are “experts” on Thanksgiving, relax and enjoy the holiday.