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Thanksgiving, 2013: A Brief History

Thanksgiving is upon us: a time to get together with relatives, eat some great food, watch a little football and/or parades, and stop to appreciate the good things we have in life. There’s a fascinating history to the holiday that goes beyond the traditional Pilgrims-and-Indians party we read about in school.

The first Thanksgiving was indeed celebrated in 1621 in the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. Records are spotty at the time, but indicate that the harvest was particularly good that year due to help from the local Native Americans. The meal was probably much different than current times, with venison and fish more likely than turkey, but the general principle was unchanged. (Critics have pointed out that the popular image glosses over the suffering endured by Native Americans, but we prefer to see it as a symbol of brotherhood and a call to rise above our differences to find common ground.)

It wasn’t a few centuries later, however, that Thanksgiving became an annual tradition. George Washington called for a “national day of Thanksgiving” in 1789, and again in 1795, but they were both “one shot” declarations, rather than a call for an annual tradition. Individual cities and states picked up the ball, but it wasn’t until 1863 that Thanksgiving became a national once-a-year event. President Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November to be a Thanksgiving “to heal the wounds of the nation and restore it.” (Lincoln was not speaking in reference to the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving, but to the divisions of the Civil War, which he hoped to heal.)

From there, it remained a tradition until Franklin Roosevelt signed a law in December of 1941, making it a federal holiday. The law also changed the date from the last Thursday in November to the fourth Thursday in November, making it a little earlier in some cases (which Roosevelt hoped would give the country an economic boost).

Wherever you celebrate the holiday and whoever you choose to celebrate it with, we wish you nothing but happiness and joy this Thanksgiving.

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