Thanksgiving Feast or NATIONAL FEAST
The Continental Congress proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving in 1777. A somber event, it specifically recommended “that servile labor and such recreations (although at other times innocent) may be unbecoming the purpose of this appointment [and should] be omitted on so solemn an occasion.”
Presidents Washington, Adams and Monroe proclaimed national Thanksgivings, but the custom fell out of use by 1815, after which the celebration of the holiday was limited to individual state observances. By the 1850s, almost every state and territory celebrated Thanksgiving.
Many people felt that this family holiday should be a national celebration, especially Sarah Josepha Hale, the influential editor of the popular women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book. In 1827, she began a campaign to reinstate the holiday after the model of the first Presidents. She publicly petitioned several Presidents to make it an annual event. Sarah Josepha Hale’s efforts finally succeeded in 1863, when she was able to convince President Lincoln that a national Thanksgiving might serve to unite a war-torn country. The President declared two national Thanksgivings that year, one for August 6 celebrating the victory at Gettysburg and a second for the last Thursday in November.
Neither Lincoln nor his successors, however, made the holiday a fixed annual event. A President still had to proclaim Thanksgiving each year, and the last Thursday in November became the customary date. In a controversial move, Franklin Delano Roosevelt lengthened the Christmas shopping season by declaring Thanksgiving for the next-to-the-last Thursday in November. Two years later, in 1941, Congress responded by permanently establishing the holiday as the fourth Thursday in the month.
THE PILGRIM AND WAMPANOAG ROLE
The Pilgrims and the Wampanoag were not particularly identified with Thanksgiving until about 1900, though interest in the Pilgrims as historic figures began shortly before the American Revolution.
With the publication of Longfellow’s best-selling poem The Courtship of Miles Standish (1848) and the recovery of Governor Bradford’s lost manuscript Of Plimoth Plantation (1855), public interest in the Pilgrims and Wampanoag grew just as Thanksgiving became nationally important. Until the third quarter of the 19th century, music, literature and popular art concentrated on the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth Rock and their first encounters with Native People on Cape Cod.
After 1890, representations of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag began to reflect a shift of interest to the 1621 harvest celebration. By the beginning of the 20th century, the Pilgrims and the Thanksgiving holiday were used to teach children about American freedom and how to be good citizens. Each November, in classrooms across the country, students participated in Thanksgiving pageants, sang songs about Thanksgiving, and built log cabins to represent the homes of the Pilgrims. Immigrant children also learned that all Americans ate turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. The last lesson was especially effective with the recollections of most immigrant children in the 20th century including stories of rushing home after school in November to beg their parents to buy and roast a turkey for a holiday dinner.