2014 marks almost 393 Thanksgiving celebrations in the United States. The Thanksgiving holiday tradition is commonly traced to a 1621 celebration at Plymouth in present-day Massachusetts. Pilgrims and Puritans who began emigrating from England in the 1620s and 1630s carried the tradition of Days of Fasting and Days of Thanksgiving with them to New England. Although the 1621 celebration was a three-day feast with venison and a wide variety of fowl, contrary to popular belief neither the Pilgrims nor Native Americans ate turducken.
We can thank Sara Josepha Hale, editor of Godey's Lady’s Book, for her role in creating a national holiday. Starting in 1845, she petitioned Congress and five presidents – Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Abraham Lincoln – to create a national holiday for Thanksgiving. All told, it took 17 years for Hale to achieve her goal.
Why did President Lincoln act on Hale’s request? He saw it as one way to unite a nation divided by the Civil War.
One week prior to the nation’s first formal Thanksgiving holiday, Lincoln spoke at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery. It was Thursday, November 19, 1863, four and a half months after the Union armies defeated those of the Confederacy at the Battle of Gettysburg. It is estimated that there were at least 45,000 and possibly as many as 51,000 casualties.
In two minutes and just 273 words Lincoln invoked the principles of human equality outlined in the Declaration of Independence and connected the sacrifices of the Civil War with the desire for “a new birth of freedom,” as well as the all-important preservation of the Union created in 1776 and its ideal of self-government.
Lincoln’s Gettysburg address is well known—I can recall memorizing and reciting it in grade school and high school. But until this week, I had never read Lincoln’s October 3, 1863 Thanksgiving proclamation.
Noting that the year “has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies” the proclamation goes on to reminds us not to take these things for granted or to forget from whence they came: “No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things.” The proclamation concludes by asking the “Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation,” and to restore “peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”