Thanksgiving holiday origins seldom remembered

Reprinted with permission of the Columbia Missourian…

I hope you had a great holiday. I spent mine with my in-laws over a “kosher ham.” At least they were trying. LOL

Thursday, November 28, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST


COLUMBIA — Happy Thanksgiving.

A bit of a history lesson for those waiting for the next football game to begin.

Although is it generally agreed that the first Thanksgiving celebration was in 1621 in the Plymouth Colony, it was not until the 1863 when President Lincoln declared the last day of November a day of Thanksgiving, and in 1941 it was settled that Thanksgiving was declared a national holiday by Congress. Prior to that, a day of thanks was observed as a day of prayer during times of war.

The first official declaration of a day of thanksgiving was in 1777 by the Continental Congress, but not everyone was excited with the idea. Even at this early date of American history, the idea of state versus national rights was questioned. The University of Virginia tells us that patriot Thomas Tudor Tucker believed “the House (of Burgess) had no business to interfere in a matter which did not concern them. Why should the President (of the Continental Congress) direct the people to do what, perhaps, they have no mind to do? If a day of thanksgiving must take place, let it be done by the authority of the several States.”  Not a presidential decree but by the people’s representatives.

There were eight such declarations during the Revolution, with only the proclamation of 1780 declaring that the day of thanksgiving would go beyond a day of prayer for winning the war against the British. The proclamation of 1780 was a bit different from those made through the end of the war simply because of its final line. After asking for God’s blessing in victory on land and sea, the proclamation concluded with:

“… To cherish all schools and seminaries of education, build up his churches in their most holy faith and to cause the knowledge of Christianity to spread over all the earth.”

One must remember that this document was written in a style that was proper for any formal proclamation of the day and the idea of God’s blessing for the leaders and fighter of the American Revolution was not questioned — at least openly. The last such annual declaration was in 1815, after the War of 1812.

American Ladies Magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale was behind the 1863 declaration of a day of Thanksgiving by President Lincoln. In fact, a day of Thanksgiving was first declared by Jefferson Davis in 1861, two years before Hale’s campaign for a Thanksgiving holiday would be honored by Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward.

The 1863 declaration of a national Thanksgiving Day was of Seward’s hand and asked for God’s help in healing the wounds caused by the Civil War. Seward wrote for Lincoln’s signature, “I do therefore invite my fellow citizens 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 Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

The last congressional declaration for a national holiday was in 1941 under the signature of President Franklyn D. Roosevelt, formally setting the last Thursday of  November as the day of celebration.  

We seem to forget the history of this day of thanks and its birth during times of harvest and of war. We seem to have put Thanksgiving aside for Black Friday and the multitude of winter holidays that fall in December. We will seek a space on the couch to watch football and plan to escape at midnight to get holiday shopping done. We tend to forget that this is a time to remember family and the bountiful harvests, a time to remember our troops under threat of war and to give thanks for the blessings of our being Americans.

I give thanks for my friends and family, for the honor to place words in this newspaper and for your support. I honor the troops who are charged with preserving those freedoms we fought so hard to achieve when the first American declaration of a day of thanks was made 236 years ago.

I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving. May you enjoy the company of family and friends, remember the origins of this national holiday and may these words find you well and in great spirits today and for the coming year.

David Rosman writes a weekly column for the Missourian. He is an editor, writer, professional speaker and college instructor in communications, ethics, business and politics. Some segments of this column were first published in his book, “A Christian Nation?: An examination of Christian nation theories and proofs.”

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About David Rosman

David is the winner of the Missouri Press Foundation's "Best Columnist" in 2013 (First Place) and 2014 (Second Place), the 2016 Harold Riback Award for excellence in writing, and the winner of the 2007 Interactive Media Award for excellence in editing.
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