Thanksgiving and Pilgrims usually go together. For most people, the holiday conjures up images of black and white garb with buckles on the hats and shoes*. At this time of year, we ponder a primitive feast 400 years in our past shared between a handful of English settlers and their Wampanoag neighbors. But, Thanksgiving isn’t just about the Pilgrims; it isn’t just about the Native Americans; it’s about the American people taking time to consider all that they have to be grateful for during the past year.
The reason Americans celebrate Thanksgiving is that the President asks us to. Ever since Abraham Lincoln offered a general thanks for the blessings of the year in 1863, there has been an unbroken string of presidential Thanksgiving proclamations.
Although Lincoln’s statement is regarded as the beginning of the national Thanksgiving holiday, it actually resurrected a practice that began in 1777, during the Revolutionary War, with the Continental Congress. George Washington issued the first presidential thanksgiving proclamation in 1789.
Not all of these calls for a day of thanksgiving were issued in November however. Credit Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the popular 19th century women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, and her campaign to elevate the holiday to national status.
Despite Washington’s first national proclamation, by the early 1800s the presidential proclamation was no longer the custom and Thanksgiving had become a somewhat random, state-by-state celebration. Hale was determined that the holiday should be restored to the national status of the early presidents and petitioned several presidents to make it a national holiday.
It wasn’t until she convinced President Lincoln that a national day of thanksgiving would help reunite the country after years of civil war that her quest was realized.
In 1863, Lincoln did proclaim the last Thursday in November as a national day of thanksgiving. However, it wasn’t until the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt that the day was designated an annual federal holiday and settled on the fourth Thursday of November.
And each year, the President offers a proclamation to the American people, expressing “gratitude for the year’s bounties and blessings” as well as encouragement to confront the “challenges of the day” with unity and compassion.
Below are excerpts from some Thanksgiving Proclamations. Visit the Pilgrim Hall Museum’s website to read all Thanksgiving Proclamations made throughout the history of our country.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1936 Thanksgiving Proclamation
“Coupled with our grateful acknowledgment of the blessings it has been our high privilege to enjoy, we have a deepening sense of solemn responsibility to assure for ourselves and our descendants a future more abundant in faith and security.
“Let us, therefore, on the day appointed, each in his own way, but together as a whole people, make due expression of our thanksgiving and humbly endeavor to follow in the footsteps of Almighty God.”
President John F. Kennedy, 1963 Thanksgiving Proclamation
“On that day let us gather in sanctuaries dedicated to worship and in homes blessed by family affection to express our gratitude for the glorious gifts of God; and let us earnestly and humbly pray that He will continue to guide and sustain us in the great unfinished tasks of achieving peace, justice, and understanding among all men and nations and of ending misery and suffering wherever they exist.”
President Bill Clinton, 1996 Thanksgiving Proclamation
“Let us now, this Thanksgiving Day, reawaken ourselves and our neighbors and our communities to the genius of our founders in daring to build the world’s first constitutional democracy on the foundation of trust and thanks to God. Out of our right and proper rejoicing on Thanksgiving Day, let us give our own thanks to God and reaffirm our love of family, neighbor, and community. Each of us can be an instrument of blessing to those we touch this Thanksgiving Day – and every day of the year.”
President George W. Bush, 2001 Thanksgiving Proclamation
“During these extraordinary times, we find particular assurance from our Thanksgiving tradition, which reminds us that we, as a people and individually, always have reason to hope and trust in God, despite great adversity. In 1621 in New England, the Pilgrims gave thanks to God, in whom they placed their hope, even though a bitter winter had taken many of their brethren. In the winter of 1777, General George Washington and his army, having just suffered great misfortune, stopped near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, to give thanks to God. And there, in the throes of great difficulty, they found the hope they needed to persevere. That hope in freedom eventually inspired them to victory.
“As we recover from the terrible tragedies of September 11, Americans of every belief and heritage give thanks to God for the many blessings we enjoy as a free, faithful, and fair-minded land. Let us particularly give thanks for the selfless sacrifices of those who responded in service to others after the terrorist attacks, setting aside their own safety as they reached out to help their neighbors. Let us also give thanks for our leaders at every level who have planned and coordinated the myriad of responses needed to address this unprecedented national crisis. And let us give thanks for the millions of people of faith who have opened their hearts to those in need with love and prayer, bringing us a deeper unity and stronger resolve.”
President Barack Obama, 2010 Thanksgiving Proclamation
“As Americans gather for the time-honored Thanksgiving Day meal, let us rejoice in the abundance that graces our tables, in the simple gifts that mark our days, in the loved ones who enrich our lives, and in the gifts of a gracious God. Let us recall that our forebears met their challenges with hope and an unfailing spirit, and let us resolve to do the same.
“I encourage all the people of the United States to come together – whether in our homes, places of worship, community centers, or any place of fellowship for friends and neighbors – to give thanks for all we have received in the past year, to express appreciation to those whose lives enrich our own, and to share our bounty with others.”
Let’s not forget the Pilgrims entirely. The traditions of Thanksgiving are steeped in historical significance. The Pilgrims brought with them a deep religious conviction of the sovereignty and protection of God over their lives. The Wampanoag had also, from ancient times, given thanks for the Creator’s gifts, holding ceremonies to “give thanks for successful harvests, for the hope of a good growing season in the early spring, and for other good fortune such as the birth of a child.”
The Pilgrims and the Native Americans found common ground in the three-day celebration of a bountiful harvest after a brutal year of sickness and starvation, and their harvest feast became the historical underpinnings of the Thanksgiving holiday.
* By the way, the traditional Pilgrim image of black and white hats and big buckles is a myth springing from portraits from that day of the wealthy in all their finery. Buckles were not only expensive, they were not in fashion in 1620, and the Pilgrims were common folk who liked naturally colorful clothing. One Pilgrim left his clothing in his will, which was described as: “one blew clothe suit, green drawers, a vilolete clothe coat, black silk stockings, skyblew garters, red grograin suit, red waistcoat, tawny colored suit with silver buttons.”
- Learn more from this White House blog, From the Archives: Thanksgiving with the Presidents
- According to TodayIFoundOut.com, The Pilgrims didn’t wear black and white clothes with buckles on their hats.
- Relive history at Plimoth Plantation
- Read Margaret Humphrey’s Pilgrim Stories