Why October 3 Isn't Thanksgiving Day
Even as Puerto Ricans lack electricity and potable water and an entire nation feels staggered by a Las Vegas mass shooting that incurred casualties on a scale one associates with war, Americans are bickering along partisan lines -- and about Puerto Rico and Las Vegas.
This seems like a new phenomenon, but it really isn’t, as today’s date reminds us. During the Great Depression, in fact, Republicans and Democrats couldn’t even avoid squabbling over when Thanksgiving should be celebrated.
The idea of a holiday to give thanks for our bounties arose in the early 17th century, long before the US of A was a gleam in the Founding Fathers’ eyes. Scholars have traced such observances to Florida, Virginia, New England, and Canada. It wasn’t always on a Thursday, and it wasn’t always in November.
As I wrote a few years ago, the Thanksgiving dinner commonly looked upon as the first came in 1621, the initial autumn the Mayflower’s Pilgrims laid up their stores for the winter. William Bradford and Edward Winslow left behind written evidence of a three-day feast shared by the immigrants and some 90 Wampanoag Indians accompanied by “their greatest king Massasoit.” There were many turkeys eaten, apparently, along with venison: The Wampanoag brought five deer they had killed.
Such annual observances took hold. The first official governmental involvement seems to have come on June 20, 1676, when the governing council of Charlestown, Massachusetts, proclaimed June 29 as a day of thanksgiving.
By the time of America’s founding as a nation, it was an establishment concept: The Continental Congress extolled George Washington’s victory over the British at Saratoga with a November 1, 1777 proclamation setting aside “December 18 next” as a day of thanksgiving. This holiday was a Veterans Day and Thanksgiving rolled into one, with the obligatory sectarian nod to “God, through the merits of Jesus Christ” thrown in for good measure.
General Washington certainly approved. After becoming president, GW authored a similar proclamation (minus the martial allusions) for “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer” to be celebrated on October 3.
So why is today not Thanksgiving Day? The answer is complicated.
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John Adams, who followed Washington into office, followed suit regarding a day of thanksgiving, but Thomas Jefferson balked, writing in an 1808 letter to the Rev. Samuel Miller: “I consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises.”
Interestingly, John Quincy Adams sided with Jefferson on this question, and not his own father. Likewise, James Madison sided with George Washington and not Jefferson, his friend and mentor. Madison was the last president until the Civil War to sign a thanksgiving proclamation. But TJ had signed such a proclamation as governor of Virginia, and here was a nice historic compromise: Governors -- especially in the New England states -- issued the proclamations each year, thus helping to keep the tradition alive.
Which brings us, as conversations on the presidency invariably do, to Abraham Lincoln. For it was on this date, October 3, that Lincoln honored the Union victory at Gettysburg by proclaiming an official Thanksgiving holiday on November 26, 1863. Lincoln added that the last Thursday of every November would thereafter be designated as Thanksgiving Day.
You’d think that would have been the end of it, but Franklin Roosevelt had ignored George Washington’s two-term precedent, and FDR sought to improve upon Lincoln. He had his reasons: In 1939 there were five Thursdays in November, and as the last one would come on November 30, some merchants groused that it left too little time for Christmas shopping.
Still wrestling during his seventh year in office with the Great Depression, FDR thus proclaimed November 23, 1939 to be Thanksgiving Day. This led to much confusion, as calendars and school schedules had already been printed, and to much pillorying of the president as well. “Franksgiving,” the mayor of Atlantic City called the new holiday.
About half the states followed FDR’s lead; the other half did not. (Colorado and Texas used both days.) But Roosevelt was stubborn, and in 1940, he announced the third Thursday of the month would be Thanksgiving. Again, the states split on whether to follow the president’s example.
The situation was a mess. George Washington and Abe Lincoln had envisioned the holiday as a day to bring people together – something that had happened as early as 1621 -- but now some American families couldn’t share the feast because they had different days off from work.
Then war came to these shores. Americans had bigger problems. And on December 26, 1941, Congress passed a law declaring that Thanksgiving would occur every year on the fourth Thursday of November. It was a wise compromise between the greatest Republican president and the greatest Democratic president.
Americans were attacked in our generation, too, and Congress and the president joined hands for a while also. It would have been nice if detente has lasted longer, but even after Hurricane Maria and the Mandalay Bay mass murder it would be in the spirit of this essay to express gratitude -- and hope. On “Morning Joe” today, Mike Barnicle put it nicely. Invoking “Be Not Afraid,” a hymn he’s heard at Mass over the years -- even at funerals -- Barnicle said, “Be not afraid, America.”