In late 1621, about four or five dozen Pilgrims — settlers in the New World from England — and roughly 90 Native Americans celebrated the settlers’ first successful harvest in North America but Thanksgiving wasn’t celebrated EVERY year.
The first official national day of thanks was November 26, 1789, created by proclamation by President George Washington. He wouldn’t declare another national thanksgiving until 1795. John Adams, his successor, declared such holidays in 1798 and 1799, but the next president, Thomas Jefferson, declined to follow suit. But over the first half of the 19th century, various presidents and state governments instituted similar holidays, some annually, others ad hoc. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving an annual national tradition, proclaiming the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day.
Thanksgiving remained on that day for roughly 75 years. But in 1939, with the nation mired in the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt decided to change it. At the time it was unseemly to start with holiday-themed advertising about Christmas before Thanksgiving and this proved to be a significant problem that year. November 1st was a Wednesday, making November 30th a Thursday — the fifth Thursday of the month. At the urging of various retail interests, Roosevelt declared that the fourth Thursday of the month — November 23rd — would be Thanksgiving.
Republicans flipped, seeing the move as a slap in the face of Lincoln’s legacy and likened Roosevelt’s decision to make the move hastily and unilaterally to something Hitler would do. In 1941, FDR declared that the holiday be celebrated on the third Thursday in November, which prompted further protests and ultimately, Congressional action. In October of 1941, Congress passed a bill restoring Thanksgiving to its original (as in 1863) status as the last Thursday in November, but FDR did not sign that bill into law. In December, the Senate, by way of compromise, amended the bill so that the holiday was, officially, on the fourth Thursday of the month. The House accepted the amendment and Roosevelt signed it into law on December 26th of that year.
Maybe we should have taken Benjamin Franklin’s advice and declared the Turkey our national symbol. Most of our leaders are turkeys!