George Washington proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday on this day in 1789, and on this day in 1863, Abraham Lincoln set the third Thursday in November as the permanent date. Historical records show that various kinds of thanksgiving observances had come and gone in North America since the late 1500s, some celebrations akin to a harvest festival, others giving thanks to God or settlement founders. Washington’s proclamation covered all the harvest/religion/forefather bases, adding nationhood to the mix of blessings, but it did not generate much enthusiasm for the holiday; Lincoln’s reiteration was an attempt to rekindle the spirit of nationhood broken by “the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged.”
In A Great and Godly Adventure, his 2006 study of “The Myth of the Pilgrims & the First Thanksgiving,” Godfrey Hodgson says that the holiday always had at least a touch of politics and public relations. The iconic 1621 Thanksgiving at Plymouth Rock was first described in a booklet written by the Mayflower pilgrim Edward Winslow and published in England in 1622. The first Thanksgiving may or may not have been the picture of abundance and concord Winslow describes, given that he “might be called the first American booster”:
It is clear that one of Winslow’s motives was salesmanship: He wanted to encourage more Englishmen to emigrate to Plymouth. (The section of Mourt’s Relation that contains the account of the First Thanksgiving is called “A letter sent from New England to a friend in these parts, setting forth a brief and true declaration of the worth of that plantation; as also certain useful directions for such as intend a voyage into those parts.”) Not only does he gloss over the privations that had only recently killed half the original settlers; he even speaks up for the New England winter…. Winslow goes on to assure English readers that “men might live as contented here as in any part of the world.” That may well be true, though the number of Yankees who moved west and south in search of better soil and warmer winters argues otherwise.
Hodgson’s book begins with two quotations about Thanksgiving, one from Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation and one from Mr. Dooley’s Opinions (1901), by the midwestern humorist Finley Peter Dunne:
‘Twas founded be th’ Puritans to give thanks f’r bein’ preserved fr’m th’Indyans, an’…we keep it to give thanks we are preserved from the Puritans.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.