FDR Proclaims Thanksgiving a National Holiday

FDR Proclaims Thanksgiving a National Holiday


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President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs a bill officially establishing the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day.

The tradition of celebrating the holiday on Thursday dates back to the early history of the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies, when post-harvest holidays were celebrated on the weekday regularly set aside as “Lecture Day,” a midweek church meeting where topical sermons were presented. A famous Thanksgiving observance occurred in the autumn of 1621, when Plymouth governor William Bradford invited local members of the Wampanoag tribe to join the Pilgrims in a festival held in gratitude for the bounty of the season.

READ MORE: Thanksgiving: A Timeline of the Holiday

Thanksgiving became an annual custom throughout New England in the 17th century, and in 1777 the Continental Congress declared the first national American Thanksgiving following the Patriot victory at Saratoga. In 1789, President George Washington became the first president to proclaim a Thanksgiving holiday, when, at the request of Congress, he proclaimed November 26, a Thursday, as a day of national thanksgiving for the U.S. Constitution. However, it was not until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving to officially fall on the last Thursday of November, that the modern holiday was celebrated nationally.

With a few deviations, Lincoln’s precedent was followed annually by every subsequent president—until 1939. In 1939, Franklin D. Roosevelt departed from tradition by declaring November 23, the next to last Thursday that year, as Thanksgiving Day. Considerable controversy surrounded this deviation, and some Americans refused to honor Roosevelt’s declaration. For the next two years, Roosevelt repeated the unpopular proclamation, but on November 26, 1941, he admitted his mistake and signed a bill into law officially making the fourth Thursday in November the national holiday of Thanksgiving Day.

READ MORE: Thanksgiving History Facts and Trivia


FDR proclaims Thanksgiving holiday Nov. 26, 1941

On this day in 1941, some two weeks before America’s entry into World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law a bill that officially established the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day.

The tradition of celebrating a post-harvest holiday on Thursday dates back to the 17th century Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies.

In 1777, the Continental Congress declared the first official Thanksgiving, following a Patriot victory at Saratoga. In 1789, President George Washington became the first president to proclaim a Thanksgiving holiday, when, at the request of Congress, he set aside Nov. 26, a Tuesday, as a day of national thanksgiving for the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. However, it was not until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving to fall on the last Thursday of November, that the modern holiday came into existence.

With a few exceptions, every year subsequent presidents followed Lincoln's precedent. In 1939, however, FDR departed from this tradition by declaring Nov. 23, the next to last Thursday that year, as Thanksgiving Day, thereby seeking to stretch Christmas shopping season but also in the process creating a controversy. On this day in 1941, FDR rectified his admitted miscue.

In recent decades, the National Turkey Federation has presented the White House with a live turkey and two dressed ones. Custom calls for the president to “pardon” the live turkey, who then gets to live out the rest of its days at a children’s petting zoo. Although it is has been widely reported that this tradition began during the Truman administration, the Truman Library in Kansas City, Mo., is unable to confirm that it ever took place.

Some observers claim that the tradition dates back to a pardon issued by Lincoln to his son's pet turkey.

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From the Archives: Thanksgiving with the Presidents

Did you know that before the 1940s Thanksgiving was not on a fixed date but was whenever the President proclaimed it to be?

George Washington issued the first Presidential proclamation for the holiday in 1789. That year he designated Thursday, November 26 as a national day of &ldquopublic thanksgiving.&rdquo The United States then celebrated its first Thanksgiving under its new Constitution. Seventy-four years later, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday on the last Thursday in November.

By the beginning of Franklin D. Roosevelt&rsquos Presidency, Thanksgiving was not a fixed holiday it was up to the President to issue a Thanksgiving Proclamation to announce what date the holiday would fall on. Tradition had dictated that the holiday be celebrated on the last Thursday of the month, however, this tradition became increasingly difficult to continue during the challenging times of the Great Depression.

Roosevelt&rsquos first Thanksgiving in office fell on November 30, the last day of the month, because November had five Thursdays that year. This meant that there were only about 20 shopping days until Christmas and statistics showed that most people waited until after Thanksgiving to begin their holiday shopping. Business leaders feared they would lose the much-needed revenue an extra week of shopping would afford them. They asked President Roosevelt to move the holiday up from the 30th to the 23rd. He chose to keep the Thanksgiving holiday on the last Thursday of the month, however, as it had been for nearly three-quarters of a century.

In 1939, with the country still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression, Thanksgiving once again threatened to fall on the last day of November. This time President Roosevelt did move Thanksgiving up a week to the 23rd. Changing the date seemed harmless enough, but it proved to be quite controversial. Small business owners felt it put them at a disadvantage and they sent letters of protest to the President.

As opposition grew, some states took matters into their own hands and defied the Presidential proclamation. Some Governors declared November 30th as Thanksgiving. And so, depending upon where one lived, Thanksgiving was celebrated on the 23rd and the 30th. This was worse than changing the date in the first place. Families who lived in states such as New York did not have the same day off as family members in states such as Connecticut! Family and friends were unable to celebrate the holiday together.

In this telegram from November 13, 1940, Leota and Helen Care ask FDR what day they should serve their turkey.

(Photo credit: U.S. National Archives and Presidential Libraries )

President Roosevelt observed Thanksgiving on the second to last Thursday of November for two more years, but the amount of public outrage prompted Congress to pass a law on December 26, 1941, ensuring that all Americans would celebrate a unified Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November every year.

Six years later, another tradition was formally established when Harry S. Truman presided over the first live turkey presentation by the Poultry and Egg National Board. The event inaugurated a lighthearted ceremony that now occurs annually at the White House. Initially, the presentation birds were intended for the Thanksgiving meal. In fact, among our holdings are photos from 1963 and 1967 in which the presentations birds given to John F. Kennedy and later, Lyndon B. Johnson, wear signs that read, &ldquoGood Eating Mr. President.&rdquo

Here is a photo of the 1967 presentation to Lyndon B. Johnson at the White House.

Annual presentation of the Thanksgiving turkey - Senator Everett Dirksen and representatives from the poultry industry and farm organizations present a turkey to Lyndon B. Johnson in the Fish Room of the White House. The turkey has a sign around its neck that says "Good Eating Mr. President,” November 16, 1967. (Photo credit: U.S. National Archives and Presidential Libraries )

It was not until November 14, 1989 that President George Bush officially &ldquogranted a Presidential pardon&rdquo to a turkey. Below is a photo of President Bush and the pardoned bird from that year&rsquos presentation.


Web Content Display Web Content Display

Here are some things to consider when reviewing the letter to the President:

  1. What does it say about our system of government that a “small merchant” feels they can write to the President and share their point of view? Why is it important for the President to hear this view?
  2. Compare and contrast the relationship of ‘large stores’ to neighborhood stores in 1939 and to today.
  3. Why do you suppose that Mr. Arnold felt compelled to mention that he had consulted with other groups before writing to the president?
  4. This letter gives the economic argument for opposing the change what other arguments can be made for staying with the traditional date?
  5. Is this view more likely to be held by an urban shop keeper or a rural shop keeper? Why do you suppose that is the case?


Mission Statement

The Library's mission is to foster research and education on the life and times of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and their continuing impact on contemporary life. Our work is carried out by four major areas: Archives, Museum, Education and Public Programs.


Mother of Thanksgiving

We owe the modern concept of Thanksgiving to a woman named Sarah Josepha Hale. Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book and author of the famous “Mary Had a Little Lamb” nursery rhyme, spent forty years advocating for a national, annual Thanksgiving holiday.

In the years leading up to the Civil War, she saw the holiday as a way to infuse hope and belief in the nation and the Constitution. So, when the United States was torn in half during the Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln was searching for a way to bring the nation together, he discussed the matter with Hale.


Thanksgiving with the Presidents

Did you know that before the 1940s, Thanksgiving was not on a fixed date but was whenever the President proclaimed it to be?

George Washington issued the first Presidential proclamation for the holiday in 1789. That year he designated Thursday, November 26 as a national day of “public thanksgiving.” The United States then celebrated its first Thanksgiving under its new Constitution. Seventy-four years later, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday on the last Thursday in November.

By the beginning of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Presidency, Thanksgiving was not a fixed holiday it was up to the President to issue a Thanksgiving Proclamation to announce what date the holiday would fall on. Tradition had dictated that the holiday be celebrated on the last Thursday of the month, however, this tradition became increasingly difficult to continue during the challenging times of the Great Depression.

Roosevelt’s first Thanksgiving in office fell on November 30, the last day of the month, because November had five Thursdays that year. This meant that there were only about 20 shopping days until Christmas and statistics showed that most people waited until after Thanksgiving to begin their holiday shopping. Business leaders feared they would lose the much-needed revenue an extra week of shopping would afford them. They asked President Roosevelt to move the holiday up from the 30th to the 23 rd . He chose to keep the Thanksgiving holiday on the last Thursday of the month, however, as it had been for nearly three-quarters of a century.

In 1939, with the country still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression, Thanksgiving once again threatened to fall on the last day of November. This time President Roosevelt did move Thanksgiving up a week to the 23rd. Changing the date seemed harmless enough, but it proved to be quite controversial. Small business owners felt it put them at a disadvantage and they sent letters of protest to the President.

As opposition grew, some states took matters into their own hands and defied the Presidential proclamation. Some Governors declared November 30th as Thanksgiving. And so, depending upon where one lived, Thanksgiving was celebrated on the 23rd and the 30th. This was worse than changing the date in the first place. Families who lived in states such as New York did not have the same day off as family members in states such as Connecticut! Family and friends were unable to celebrate the holiday together. In this telegram from November 13, 1940, Leota and Helen Care ask FDR what day they should serve their turkey.

President Roosevelt observed Thanksgiving on the second to last Thursday of November for two more years, but the amount of public outrage prompted Congress to pass a law on December 26, 1941, ensuring that all Americans would celebrate a unified Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November every year.

Six years later, another tradition was formally established when Harry S. Truman presided over the first live turkey presentation by the Poultry and Egg National Board. The event inaugurated a lighthearted ceremony that now occurs annually at the White House. Initially, the presentation birds were intended for the Thanksgiving meal. In fact, among our holdings are photos from 1963 and 1967 in which the presentations birds given to John F. Kennedy and later, Lyndon B. Johnson, wear signs that read, “Good Eating Mr. President.”

It wasn’t until November 14, 1989 that President George Bush officially “granted a Presidential pardon” to a turkey.


Presidents From Lincoln to FDR Kept the Thanksgiving Tradition Going

The Civil War was raging when Abraham Lincoln issued a presidential proclamation that started the process of making Thanksgiving, celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November, a federal holiday.

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Previous presidents had issued Thanksgiving proclamations before. Washington had declared the first official national Thanksgiving in 1789. Lincoln himself had issued proclamations in the spring of 1862 and 1863, although those were days of thanksgiving for military victories. But the October 1863 proclamation was the first time that a president had singled out a specific date–the last Thursday in November–for the occasion of a holiday specifically called Thanksgiving.

Signed on October 3, 1863, just months after Union victory at the bloody Battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln’s proclamation declared that the wartorn nation’s year had nonetheless “been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties,” it continued, “which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.”

Despite being in the throes of “a war of unequalled magnitude and severity,” the country’s population was growing, business was booming and peace had been preserved with foreign powers (such as Britain) who might have joined the Confederate cause, it declared. That year, according to the White House Historical Society, the President began the tradition of pardoning a turkey in response to the pleas of his son Tad Lincoln.  The next year’s Thanksgiving proclamation celebrated some of the same things–and noted the same "last Thursday in November" date.

Lincoln’s proclamation was “the culmination of a 36-year campaign started by so-called ‘mother’ or ‘godmother’ of Thanksgiving, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale,” writes Olivia B. Waxman for Time.  Hale, who publicized and partially wrote the poem “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” was the “Lady Editor” of Godey’s Lady’s Book, a massively successful women’s magazine. Hale thought that the celebration, which was widely observed if not enshrined in law, “should be a national festival observed by all the people… as an exponent of our republican institutions.”

Using her editorial voice, Hale pushed for this aim and started a letter-writing campaign to government officials. Writing to Abraham Lincoln himself, Hale argued for the last Thursday in November, on the grounds that George Washington declared the first official national Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November, 1789, writes Waxman.

In between that first official Thanksgiving and Lincoln’s proclamation, “subsquent presidents issued Thanksgiving Proclamations, but the dates and even months of the celebrations varied,” writes the National Archives. “Early Americans celebrated Thanksgiving not as a fixed annual event, but as a series of ad hoc holidays called in response to specific events,” writes Paul Quigley for The New York Times. “ These were religious occasions, intended to invoke God’s help to cope with hardships, or to offer God thanks for positive developments.”

However, Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation started something, the Pilgrim Hall Museum  writes : an “unbroken string of annual presidential Thanksgiving proclamations” that stretched forward all the way to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941, when Congress passed a law fixing the date for Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November. Presidents after Roosevelt continued to issue Thanksgiving proclamations but they were more formalities, since the holiday was now federal law. But because Lincoln’s 1863 declaration is what started it all, it's “regarded as the true beginning of the national Thanksgiving holiday,” the museum writes.

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance science and culture journalist based in Toronto.


FDR Moved Thanksgiving to Give People More Time to Shop

T hanksgiving had been an official national holiday for decades when, in 1939, Franklin Roosevelt decided to mix things up.

The November calendar that year was an odd one: the month had started on a Wednesday, so there were five Thursdays rather than four Thursdays. Though Thanksgiving had been celebrated on the last Thursday of the month since the time of Lincoln, that August Roosevelt “broke his umptieth [sic] precedent,” in the words of TIME, and declared that he was moving the national Thanksgiving day up a week, the the second-to-last Thursday in the month.

Many people were not happy about the change, as TIME reported the week after it was announced:

Only since 1863 has Thanksgiving had a consistent year-to-year day, but football coaches were furious: 30% of them had games scheduled Nov. 30 which would now play to ordinary weekday crowds. Calendar-makers took the blow quietly except for Elliott-Greer Stationery Co. of Amarillo, Tex., which happily discovered it had designated Nov. 23 as Thanksgiving Day by mistake. Alf Landon sounded off in Colorado as follows: &ldquo. . . Another illustration of the confusion which his impulsiveness has caused so frequently during his administration. If the change has any merit at all, more time should have been taken in working it out . . . instead of springing it upon an unprepared country with the omnipotence of a Hitler.&rdquo

Yes, Roosevelt’s Republican rival did just compare FDR to Hitler because of this.

But FDR had a Black Friday-friendly explanation: merchants wanted a holiday that was farther from Christmas, allowing more time to shop. By that fall, 22 states had decided to play along with the change in their official calendars, 23 were sticking with tradition and Mississippi hadn’t decided. (Two states, Texas and Colorado, decided to observe both holidays.) The President stuck with the change the following year, declaring Nov. 21 to be the official Thanksgiving Day for 1940.

The following year, however, TIME’s headline on the topic was “President Admits Mistake”:

Midway in his press conference, with no change of voice or expression, the President picked up a memorandum and said there was one thing more. The reporters, expecting an announcement of the occupation of Martinique, or the declaration of a national emergency, sucked in their breath. They let it out again when they heard the President say that in 1942 Thanksgiving would be changed back to the traditional date, the last Thursday in November.

Nobody rushed for the telephone. But seasoned old Pundit Mark Sullivan grasped the full historic significance of the change: though some New Deal experiments had been killed by Congress, and a few had been invalidated by the courts, this was the first one to be formally renounced. The President made it clear that he had not been responsible for the mistake in the first place. Retail merchants had wanted the date of Thanksgiving set a week ahead to lengthen the shopping season before Christmas the expected boon to trade had not materialized the changed date had been an experiment and the experiment had not worked.

It was, by then, too late to change 1941’s calendars, on which the old-new Thanksgiving date (the third Thursday) had already been printed. And in Maine, things were even more extreme: “Now that President Roosevelt has gone back to the old Thanksgiving,” TIME reported, “Republican Governor Sumner Sewall has proclaimed the new Thanksgiving for the first time.”

By the end of 1941, Roosevelt had signed a bill officially sticking Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November, whether or not it was the last Thursday of the month. His attempt to give Americans a longer holiday season had proved futile &mdash but, as anyone at a mall this Friday could attest, his instinct about the nation’s desire to get shopping wasn’t entirely misguided.


FDR Proclaims Thanksgiving a National Holiday - HISTORY

On Thanksgiving Day, November 23, 1939, Franklin Roosevelt carved the turkey at the annual Thanksgiving Dinner at Warm Springs, Georgia, and wished all Americans across the country a Happy Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, his greeting went unanswered in some states many Americans were not observing Thanksgiving on the same day as the President. Instead, they were waiting to carve their turkeys on the following Thursday because November 30th in many states was the official Thanksgiving Day. Two Thanksgivings? Why were Americans celebrating a national holiday on two different days?

At the beginning of Franklin Roosevelt's presidency, Thanksgiving was not a fixed holiday it was up to the President to issue a Thanksgiving Proclamation to announce what date the holiday would fall on. However, Thanksgiving was always the last Thursday in November because that was the day President Abraham Lincoln observed the holiday when he declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. Franklin Roosevelt continued that tradition, but he soon found that tradition was difficult to keep in extreme circumstances such as the Great Depression. His first Thanksgiving in office, 1933, fell on November 30th, the last day of the month, because November had five Thursdays that year. Since statistics showed that most people did not do their Christmas shopping until after Thanksgiving, business leaders feared they would lose money, especially during the Depression, because there were only 24 shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas. They asked Franklin Roosevelt to make Thanksgiving one week earlier. President Roosevelt ignored those concerns in 1933, but when Thanksgiving once again threatened to fall on the last day of November in 1939, FDR reconsidered the request and moved the date of Thanksgiving up one week. Thanksgiving 1939 would be held, President Roosevelt proclaimed, on November 23rd and not November 30th.

Changing the date of Thanksgiving seemed harmless enough, but in actuality proved quite controversial. It was so upsetting that thousands of letters poured into the White House once President Roosevelt announced the date change. Some retailers were pleased because they hoped the extra week of Christmas shopping would increase profits, but smaller businesses complained they would lose business to larger stores. Other companies that depended on Thanksgiving as the last Thursday of November lost money calendar makers were the worst hit because they printed calendars years in advance and FDR made their calendars out of date for the next two years. Schools were also disrupted by Roosevelt's decision most schools had already scheduled vacations and annual Thanksgiving Day football games by the time they learned of Thanksgiving's new date and had to decide whether or not to reschedule everything. Moreover, many Americans were angry that Roosevelt tried to alter such a long-standing tradition and American values just to help businesses make more money.*

As opposition grew, some states took matters into their own hands and defied the Presidential Proclamation. Some governors declared November 30th as Thanksgiving. And so, depending upon where one lived, Thanksgiving was celebrated on the 23rd and the 30th. This was worse than changing the date in the first place because families that lived in states such as New York did not have the same day off as family members in states such as Connecticut! Family and friends were unable to celebrate the holiday together.

Franklin Roosevelt observed Thanksgiving on the second to last Thursday of November for two more years, but the amount of public outrage prompted Congress to pass a law on December 26, 1941, ensuring that all Americans would celebrate a unified Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November every year.

*Many Americans at the time believed that the Pilgrims chose the last Thursday in November to be Thanksgiving, but that is not the case. Although Americans had celebrated days of thanksgiving before, it was not until 1863 when President Lincoln began the observance of Thanksgiving in November.

The following letters are just a few of the thousands of letters President Roosevelt received regarding his decision to move Thanksgiving up one week:

Letter from Downtown Association of Los Angeles to FDR encouraging the President to move Thanksgiving one week earlier, October 2, 1933.

Telegram from Richman Brothers clothing manufacturers to FDR claiming the change of Thanksgiving will hurt merchants, October 13, 1933.

Letter from Charles Arnold to FDR expressing his concern that the new Thanksgiving date will hurt small store owners, August, 15, 1939.

Letter from Robert Benson to FDR shaming President Roosevelt for stripping America's sense of idealism and tradition, August 17, 1939.

Letter from John Taylor to FDR explaining that the calendar industry will lose money if the date of Thanksgiving is changed, August, 15, 1939.

Letter from New York University to FDR's secretary stating that the change in Thanksgiving will disrupt the university's annual football game, August 22, 1939.

Letter from Eleanor Lucy Blydenburgh to FDR describing that her school in New York will be celebrating Thanksgiving on a different day than her family in Connecticut, October 18, 1939.

Telegram from F.P. Archer, Sr. to FDR stating that everyday is Thanksgiving, August 16, 1939.

Satirical letter from Shelby Bennett to FDR asking President Roosevelt to change other days of the week since he changed Thanksgiving, August 15, 1939.

Telegram from Leota and Helen Care asking Franklin Roosevelt when they should serve their turkey, November 13, 1940.


FDR Proclaims Thanksgiving a National Holiday - HISTORY

A vintage Thanksgiving postcard featuring pardoned turkeys. (Flickr/The White House)

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The Civil War was raging when Abraham Lincoln issued a presidential proclamation that started the process of making Thanksgiving a federal holiday. It is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November.

Previous presidents had issued Thanksgiving proclamations before. Washington had declared the first official national Thanksgiving in 1789, and Lincoln himself had issued proclamations in the spring of 1862 and 1863. But these were days of thanksgiving for military victories. His October 1863 proclamation was the first time that a president had singled out a specific date. He designated last Thursday in November which would be the occasion of a holiday specifically called Thanksgiving.

It was signed on October 3, 1863, just months after a Union victory at the bloody Battle of Gettysburg. Lincoln&rsquos proclamation declared that the wartorn nation&rsquos year had nonetheless &ldquobeen filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties,&rdquo it continued, &ldquowhich are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added. They are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.&rdquo

The country&rsquos population was growing despite being in the throes of &ldquoa war of unequalled magnitude and severity.&rdquo Business was booming and peace had been preserved with foreign powers (such as Britain) who might have joined the Confederate cause.

That year the President began the tradition of pardoning a turkey in response to the pleas of his son Tad Lincoln. This is according to the White House Historical Society. The next year&rsquos Thanksgiving proclamation celebrated some of the same things and noted the same "last Thursday in November" date.

Lincoln&rsquos proclamation was &ldquothe culmination of a 36-year campaign started by so-called &lsquomother&rsquo or &lsquogodmother&rsquo of Thanksgiving, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale. That's according to Olivia B. Waxman writing for Time. Hale had publicized and partially wrote the poem &ldquoMary Had a Little Lamb.&rdquo She was the &ldquoLady Editor&rdquo of Godey&rsquos Lady&rsquos Book, a massively successful women&rsquos magazine. Hale thought that the celebration &ldquoshould be a national festival observed by all the people. It should be as an exponent of our republican institutions.&rdquo The celebration was was widely observed if not enshrined in law.

Using her editorial voice, Hale pushed for this aim and started a letter-writing campaign to government officials. Writing to Abraham Lincoln himself, Hale argued for the last Thursday in November. She believed this on the grounds that George Washington declared the first official national Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November, 1789, writes Waxman.

In between that first official Thanksgiving and Lincoln&rsquos proclamation, &ldquosubsequent presidents issued Thanksgiving Proclamations, but the dates and even months of the celebrations varied,&rdquo writes the National Archives.

&ldquoEarly Americans celebrated Thanksgiving not as a fixed annual event, but as a series of ad hoc holidays called in response to specific events,&rdquo writes Paul Quigley for The New York Times. &ldquoThese were religious occasions, intended to invoke God&rsquos help to cope with hardships, or to offer God thanks for positive developments.&rdquo

However, Lincoln&rsquos 1863 proclamation started something, the Pilgrim Hall Museum writes: an &ldquounbroken string of annual presidential Thanksgiving proclamations&rdquo that stretched forward all the way to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941, when Congress passed a law fixing the date for Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November.

Presidents after Roosevelt continued to issue Thanksgiving proclamations but they were more formalities, since the holiday was now federal law. But because Lincoln&rsquos 1863 declaration is what started it all, it's &ldquoregarded as the true beginning of the national Thanksgiving holiday,&rdquo the museum writes.


Thanksgiving Becomes a National Holiday

When President Lincoln issued his Thanksgiving proclamation in 1863, he issued it only for that year. He issued another proclamation in 1864, and every president since then has maintained the practice.

In 1871, Hale began advocating for Congress to institute Thanksgiving as an annual national holiday. It was not until 1941, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law a bill setting the fourth Thursday of November as an official U.S. holiday, that Hale’s 1871 vision was complete:

As things now stand, our Thanksgiving is exposed to the chances of the time. Unless the President or the Governor of the State in office happens to see fit, no day is appointed for its observance. Is not this a state of things which calls for instant remedy? Should not our festival be assured to us by law? We hope to see, before many months have elapsed, perhaps before our next Thanksgiving, the passage of an act by Congress appointing the last Thursday in November as a perpetual holiday, wherein the whole nation may unite in praise to Almighty God for his bounty and love, in rejoicing over the blessings of the year, in the union of families, and in acts of charity and kindness to the poor.