Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! This is maybe my favorite holiday of the year, unburdened as it is by the anxiety of gift-giving, focused on a simple but bountiful harvest meal shared with a community of friends and family. And if my family leaves money, religion, politics, and some nephew’s haircut out of the conversation, I am extremely thankful.
I tend to think of Thanksgiving as an American and Canadian holiday, but vestiges of the American holiday, as well as general harvest festivals, are celebrated worldwide. For example, Liberia celebrates Thanksgiving (and many other American traditions) because it was founded by freed American slaves. An American trader brought the feasting tradition to Norfolk Island, located east of Australia, in the 1800s, and the tradition has remained. The Philippines, a former U.S. colony, celebrates Thanksgiving. And a nondenominational Thanksgiving Day service is held in Leiden, The Netherlands, each year on the morning of the American Thanksgiving Day to remember the many Pilgrims who lived in Leiden before their departure to the New World from 1609–1620.
Germany, the United Kingdom, and Japan all have variations on harvest festivals. In Grenada, however, Thanksgiving Day marks not a fall harvest festival, but the anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of the island in 1983 in response to the deposition and execution of its prime minister, Maurice Bishop. That seems really gruesome to me, but maybe the Grenadians were thankful for it at the time.
On to cheerier thoughts: The U.S. tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving on Thursday dates back to the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies, when post-harvest holidays were celebrated on the weekday set aside as “Lecture Day,” a church meeting where topical sermons were delivered. A famous Thanksgiving observance occurred in 1621, when Plymouth governor William Bradford invited local Native Americans to join the Pilgrims in a three-day festival held in gratitude for the bounty of the season.
Thanksgiving became an annual custom throughout New England in the 17th century, and in 1777 the Continental Congress declared the first national American Thanksgiving following the colonists’ victory at Saratoga. George Washington proclaimed Tuesday, November 26, 1789, as a day of national thanksgiving for the U.S. Constitution. But the holiday was first celebrated nationally in 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln—after a vigorous campaign by Sarah Josepha Hale, the first woman editor of a U.S. magazine (Ladies’ Magazine and Godey’s Lady’s Book)—declared Thanksgiving to fall on the last Thursday of November.
With a few deviations, Lincoln’s precedent was followed annually by every subsequent president until 1939, when Franklin D. Roosevelt departed from tradition and declared the next-to-last Thursday as Thanksgiving Day in a Depression-era effort to increase the number of shopping days before Christmas. This decision was controversial, and some Americans refused to honor Roosevelt’s declaration. For the next two years, Roosevelt repeated the unpopular proclamation, but in 1941 he caved, signing a bill into law that made the fourth Thursday in November the official national holiday of Thanksgiving Day.
And so we have celebrated it then ever since, largely by clogging up airports and flying to see our families and friends, for which I am very thankful. Best wishes, safe travels, and happy writing to you all!