When is Thanksgiving?

Lillian Wills asked:

Every year, just as Halloween passes, and the reality of the impending Christmas shopping season takes residence, the question arises of when is Thanksgiving. The Thanksgiving holiday has been celebrated in the United States since 1789, when President George Washington proclaimed that the annual date for Thanksgiving was to be on the last Thursday of November. As the unofficial kickoff of the Christmas holiday season for retailers traditionally begins the day after Thanksgiving, the designation of Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday, rather than the last, provides for a longer holiday shopping season.

The question of when is Thanksgiving has not always had a consistent answer. In 1676, 55 years after the Pilgrims’ first feast in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the governing council of Charlestown, Massachusetts, had issued the first annual United States Thanksgiving Proclamation. On this date, the council declared that June 29, 1676 was to be a day of Thanksgiving to God for the good fortune they had secured in their new land. While Thanksgiving is traditionally depicted as the feast commemorating the bonds of friendship forged between the English settlers in Massachusetts and the Native Americans celebrated by a three day harvest celebration in 1621. Oddly enough, the language of the original proclamation of 1676 declares a day for praise to God for his blessings and protection against “the Heathen Natives of this land”.

On October 3, 1863 President Abraham Lincoln stated that the last Thursday of November “as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens”. After Lincoln, the following presidents continued to issue a proclamation on an annual basis, declaring when is Thanksgiving, although it always continued to be celebrated and enjoyed on the very last Thursday in the month of November all the way until 1939.

In 1939, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in an attempt to increase merchant spending during the Christmas holiday season, declared Thanksgiving to be on the 4th Thursday of November, as the month of November has 5 Thursdays that year, thereby extending the holiday shopping season. At that time in history, which was also during The Great Depression, it was considered inappropriate to advertise goods as Christmas gifts before Thanksgiving. The following year, 1940, November had 4 Thursdays, and Roosevelt proclaimed that Thanksgiving would fall on the third Thursday of November. At this time, the annual presidential declaration of the Thanksgiving Day holiday was not legally binding so it was up to the individual states to decide when is Thanksgiving, which of course was considered a government holiday.

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