Our National Thanksgiving: Its Origin and Significance By Minnie May Goode (Daughters of the American Revolution Magazine 1917)
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The Observance of Thanksgiving as a National Holiday is not, in reality, a “time-honored custom,” as is frequently proclaimed. This error is perhaps somewhat due to our eagerness to associate it with a more remote and interesting history. Just fifty-two years ago the last Thursday in November became, by adoption by the President of the United States, our National Thanksgiving Day.
The first Annual Thanksgiving Proclamation was issued by President Johnson just after the close of the Civil War. This festive holiday was, therefore, established at a time when peace was again restored to our country. Previous to that time Thanksgiving proclamations had been issued irregularly by various Presidents and Governors.
One of the most interesting and inspiring stories in American history is the origin of Thanksgiving Day, and its observance is the one custom that, notwithstanding the great problems of governmental affairs, has established and set aside a day of grateful remembrance. It has taught a multitude of people to give thanks in remembrance of a Nation upon whose founders were bestowed the blessing of a Divine Providence. It is the one religious festival which has the seal of Government and is therefore of great importance.
Many stories and customs regarding this holiday have their origin in various tates of our Union. The custom, hoeever, belongs essentially to the New England States.
We are all proud of the fact that our National Thanksgiving Day is distinctly American. However, the idea of thanksgiving is much older than our Nation. Literally, we borrowed the idea from the Dutch, with whom the Pilgrims, after leaving British soil, dwelt twelve years before emigrating to America; it being the custom in Holland to hold a period of public Thanksgiving in honor of their deliverance from the Spaniards. October 3d was the date of this festival in Holland and it is not to be wondered that the band of Pilgrims who journeyed in the Mayflower to America should establish this custom.
The Pilgrims, so called because of their wanderings, were the Puritans of England, an intensely religious and thoroughly Protestant sect. While the state religion of England had been changed from Catholic to Protestant some seventy years previous, a large number of the people did not recognize the new church as a complete purification of old doctrines. This they demanded of the government, which, however, was refused them and they were called Puritans. Being punished, and unable to worship as they believed, they took refuge in Holland in 1608.
The character of the Pilgrim settlers was such as might well incite the aspirations of their descendants. Earnest, sober-minded men, actuated in all things by deep religious principle, they were never disloyal to their convictions of duty. No wonder that Forefathers' Rock is to-day held in grateful remembrance of a people whose influence has been felt throughout the country.
Their voyage was a perilous one, and after many hardships they landed at Plymouth Rock December 21, 1620. The weather being bitter cold, and having no houses in which to settle themselves, they retained the vessel in which they had sailed as their home until spring. The winter had been very hard and by spring more than half their little band, which had originally numbered exactly 102, died of exposure. It was not until April that the Mayflower sailed away.
Thanks be to God for wintertime, that bore the Mayflower up,
To pour amid New England snows the treasures of its cup;
To fold them in its icy arms, those sturdy Pilgrim sires,
And weld an iron brotherhood around their Christmas fires!
Fortunately friendly relations were established with the Indians, and the Pilgrims were welcomed by their chief. The men succeeded in procuring game from the Indians and also great quantities of grain which they sowed in the spring of 1621 and a beautiful harvest was gathered in October of that year. Governor Bradford ordered a feast and celebration in which their Indian friends were invited to participate. There were wild geese, turkeys, deer and all manner of fowl, fish, vegetables, and other things in great abundance.
Although the Colonists met with many reverses, and periods of famine ensued, scarcely a year passed without some form of thanksgiving. Another celebration by the Plymouth Colony followed, by order of the Governor, on July 30, 1623, after the return of Capt. Miles Standish with food and the glad news that a ship was seen on the way. Shortly afterwards the "Anne" anchored containing many friends who were left behind because of lack of room in the Mayflower.
This being the first time in the history of our country that a special day of Thanksgiving was appointed by the Governor, it is therefore claimed by some as the origin of our Thanksgiving Day, rather than the celebration of 1621. In 1630 a public Thanksgiving Day was observed by the Bay Colony, the Puritans of Boston. There in February of the following year another was held, and it is said to be the first of which any written record now remains in the Colonial Records of Massachusetts.
Other New England Colonies soon followed Massachusetts in the observance of Thanksgiving. The first Proclamation issued in Connecticut was in 1639. In 1692 Plymouth was united with Massachusetts Bay Colony under the name of Massachusetts.
After New York passed into the hands of England the English Governors, following the custom of their Dutch predecessors, ordered the observance of Thanksgiving.
During the Revolutionary War an annual Thanksgiving Day was observed by proclamation of the Continental Congress. A certain Thanksgiving celebration which occurred during this period of conflict is especially noteworthy at this time when our soldiers are being sent away to fight for the Colors in France. On May 6, 1778, following that notable winter at Valley Forge, General Washington, after receiving the glad news that France had concluded a treaty of alliance in acknowledgment of the Thirteen American States, issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation in which he outlined a most elaborate program of ceremonies for May 7, 1778.
On this occasion General Lafayette and other French officers were present; also Mrs. Washington, Mrs. Green, Lady Stirling and many other ladies took part. There was a great display of artillery and discharge of cannon. After a discharge of 13 guns, and at a given signal the whole Army gave the huzza, “Long live the King of France!” After another discharge there followed a second huzza, “Long live the European Powers!” And finally, after a discharge of 13 pieces of artillery, a final huzza, “The American States!"
This program of ceremonies, as outlined by Washington in his “orderly book,” has been preserved.
On October 3, 1789, Washington, as President of the United States, issued the first National Thanksgiving Proclamation. Various other Presidents followed the custom irregularly.
The day was not recognized in the South until 1857, when the Governor of Virginia issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation. Other Southern States also followed the custom. In the South it was always an occasion of marked hospitality.
At the outbreak of the Civil War these celebrations were abandoned until peace was again restored. President Lincoln issued a proclamation in 1864. The following year President Johnson appointed the last Thursday in November as our National Thanksgiving Day, which has been regularly adopted by each President since that time.