Giving Thanks


Americans have celebrated the annual Thanksgiving holiday so long that it has become part of our national mythology. In fact, it has only been an official, national celebration since 1863, proclaimed by President Abraham Lincoln as a way of uniting a disheartened and divided country during the American Civil War.

Plimoth Plantation reenactment of the first Thanksgiving in 1621


The holiday itself has many roots, and interweaves Native American traditions of giving thanks for rich harvests  with Puritan ones of celebration a good harvest after hard years of travel, weather, and labor. The Puritan custom evolved into a New England custom of annual thanksgiving that was declared yearly in the Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Plymouth colonies and celebrated on a weekday to offer citizens an additional day of rest in their week.





By the eighteenth century (1700s), the family dinner table overshadowed the religious resonance of the event. As New England settlers moved further west, they took this custom with them.

The Continental Congress declared a national day of Thanksgiving in 1777, as a solemn day of observance in the face of the difficulties of the Revolutionary War. George Washington, John Adams, and John Monroe declared such days sporadically during their presidencies, but the custom died out by the 1820s.


In 1827, a woman wrote a novel called Northwood: A Tale of New England, in which the family celebrated an annual Thanksgiving dinner. This became significant only after the author, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, became the influential editor of a new kind of news source: the women’s magazine.

Sarah Josepha Hale was a widowed mother and a poet and author. A native New Englander, she grew up celebrating Thanksgiving. Her novel Northwood attracted the attention of The Ladies’ Magazine, and she was hired as editor in 1828. In 1837, Louis Godey took over the magazine and changed its name to Godey’s Lady’s Book. Godey and Hale collaborated on the title for the next 40 years.



Godey’s Lady’s Book became the most popular magazine of its day. By 1840 it had circulation of 40,000. By 1860, it reached 150,000 subscribers. While avoiding overt politics, Hale did make use of her influence to further causes such as promoting education for women (she helped found Vasser), publishing the work of women authors, promoting child welfare laws, and establishing Washington’s Mount Vernon home as a national monument. Hale advocated widely for a national celebration of Thanksgiving as well. In 1863 she wrote President Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward calling on them to establish this as an official, national holiday.  Lincoln did so, as an attempt to unify a nation at Civil War.





For the next 50 years or so, Thanksgiving continued to be proclaimed annually by the President, usually on the last Thursday in November. In 1941, Congress proclaimed the holiday an annual one, to be celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November, as we do to this day.

We hope you have a restful and delicious Thanksgiving feast!


Enjoy this gallery of gorgeous vintage Thanksgiving postcards:

Here the Smithsonian museums have put together a collection of Thanksgiving-themed objects, gifts, and activities:

This listing includes a playlist on the Smithsonian’s recording label, Folkways:




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