Thanksgiving is a truly great American holiday. It is a time when people from all over the world blend their traditions into one religious holiday celebrated by Christians, Jews, Moslems, and every other faith alike. To give thanks is universal, and what better way to celebrate deliverance to a land that to many is indeed the Promised Land.
But why is it in November? The very first day of Thanksgiving was held right after the harvest, on a day very similar to the Canadian Thanksgiving on October 12th. Why is it on a Thursday? The answer is that the nation itself was delivered from the horrors of war and recognized by the Treaty of Paris, owing a bit of time for the time it takes to cross the Atlantic and bring the joyous news. It was indeed a time to be thankful – but the story has the Hand of Providence all over it.
1783 was a hopeful but dark year. The Revolutionary War had wound down after Cornwallis’ defeat at Yorktown at the end of 1781 and there was peace on the continent. But the war had not concluded and a permanent peace treaty had yet to be negotiated that would recognize the nation and allow it to go forward in prosperity.
Word came from Paris that the negotiations were going well by the start of the Fall, and the Continental Congress was hopeful. On October 11th they decided that it was time to turn to God for help and declared a day of Thanksgiving and prayer:
… The United States in Congress assembled, taking into their consideration the many instances of Divine goodness to these States in the course of the important conflict, in which they have been so long engaged, – the present happy and promising state of public affairs, and the events of the war in the course of the year now drawing to a close … Do hereby recommend it to the inhabitants of these States in general, to observe and request the several states to interpose their authority, in appointing and commanding the observation of THURSDAY the TWENTY-EIGHTH DAY OF NOVEMBER next as a day of SOLEMN THANKSGIVING to GOD for all His mercies.
The appeal was heard before it was even offered. They didn’t know that the Treaty of Paris had already been signed on September 3rd, ending the war and formally recognizing a new nation upon the earth. That word arrived on November 26th in Philadelphia, two days before the formal day of Thanksgiving. It was a wonderful day indeed. This new land was, by any reasonable account, blessed through its humility and piety.
But the Continental Congress was not going to be able to hold that nation together. After the war ended the states only became more bitter in their squabbles over debt and power. A new Constitution was written and, in 1789, took effect as George Washington was inaugurated as President.
One of the first orders of business they undertook was the passage of a series of amendments to the new constitution that was promised to those states who were wary of the strong new central power. It was called the “Bill of Rights”, and of the 12 amendments proposed the first 10 were adopted. They guaranteed the basic rights of the people that we hold so dear to this day. They passed the new Congress on September 25th, 1789.
One week later, President Washington issued a proclamation to give thanks for this passage. It took time to get the word out through the young nation, so he chose the date carefully. This day of Thanksgiving was chosen to be November 26th, 1789 – the sixth anniversary of the arrival of the news that the Treaty of Paris had been signed, and on that year a Thursday. The nation had a lot to be thankful for.
Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be– That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks–for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation–for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war–for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed–for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted–for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.
And so the holiday came to be celebrated on a Thursday in November. But there was one final twist. The tradition fell to the last Thursday in November, roughly the anniversary of that glorious day in 1783 when the news of deliverance arrived in Philadelphia. But in 1939 that day fell on the 30th. Retailers complained that the holiday shopping season would be terribly short, so president Franklin Roosevelt summarily moved the holiday to the third Thursday of the month. But in 1941, Congress moved it back to the fourth Thursday, where it is today. But it felt the pressure of shopping season, even back then.
May the blessings of this great land and our deliverance from times of hardship warm the hearts and stomachs of you and yours this great day of Thanksgiving.