Actually, according to University of Nebraska – Lincoln history professor Kenneth Winkle, the Pilgrims weren’t even the first to celebrate Thanksgiving. The first recorded Thanksgiving was held in Virginia in 1619.
But, it is the celebration the Pilgrims held that we remember.
After suffering through a horrid first winter, the Pilgrims held Thanksgiving in the fall of 1621 to celebrate a bountiful harvest. They invited the neighboring Indian tribe who had been so helpful to them.
“The Wampanoags, who brought their own food with them to the feast, so Americans today celebrate Thanksgiving with a feast,” Winkle tells Nebraska Radio Network.
As for the official holiday, it took a while to develop.
President George Washington proclaimed a day of thanks in honor of the adoption of the Constitution and the founding of the nation as the very first presidential proclamation. Presidents throughout our history followed suit by proclaiming days of thanksgiving to celebrate specific events. It didn’t become an annual celebration until President Abraham Lincoln.
Winkle says Lincoln had proclaimed days of national humiliation, prayer, and fasting when the Union lost battles in the Civil War. He found an opportunity to proclaim a day of thanks in wake of the Union victory at Gettysburg.
Winkle credits writer/editor Sarah Josepha Hale with seizing an opportunity when she discovered Lincoln’s plans. Hale was editor of the most popular women’s magazine of the day, Godey’s Lady Book, and had advocated a national annual day of thanks since 1850 as a way to unite the nation and create a common tradition. Many states held their own thanksgiving celebrations around harvest time.
“So, when Lincoln proclaimed a Thanksgiving Day in September, she hurriedly wrote to him and asked him to follow up with a national Thanksgiving Day on the last Thursday of November and he readily agreed,” according to Winkle.
The date was changed in 1939, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to the third Thursday of November to lengthen the Christmas shopping season. Congress got involved and made the fourth Thursday of November Thanksgiving.
AUDIO: Brent Martin reports [1:10]