Thanksgiving traces back to a harvest celebration between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians in 1621 and has become a time for families and friends to gather to reflect and to express gratitude.
It’s celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November in the U.S., but for much of the country’s history, Thanksgiving Day was not a fixed date on the calendar but was whenever the president proclaimed it.
George Washington was the first president to issue a proclamation for the holiday in 1789, according to the Library of Congress, designating Thursday, Nov. 26, “for the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving.” Six years later, he called for a second thanksgiving day on Thursday, Feb. 19, 1795.
Thomas Jefferson refused to endorse the tradition and declined to make a proclamation in 1801. His rivals, the Federalists, founded by Alexander Hamilton, used his stance on the separation of church and state as a political weapon to try and convince Americans that he was an atheist who was making America less godly.
Between 1846-1863, Sarah Josepha Hale, a pioneering influencer and editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, petitioned Congress and five different presidents (Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan and Lincoln) to create a national annual holiday for Thanksgiving. She finally had success when in 1863 President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday on the last Thursday in November.
FDR’s turkey day trouble
When Franklin Roosevelt first became president in 1933, Thanksgiving was still not a fixed holiday. His first Thanksgiving in office fell on Nov. 30, leaving only about 20 shopping days left before Christmas (almost all stores closed on Sundays at that time, kids).
At the time, most people waited to start their holiday shopping until after Thanksgiving, and business leaders feared they would lose crucial revenue that an extra week would bring. They urged Roosevelt to move the holiday up a week to Thursday, Nov. 23. He demurred.
In 1939, however, with the country still recovering from the Great Depression and Thanksgiving again set to fall on the last day of November, Roosevelt agreed to move the date up a week to Nov. 23. The change proved to be controversial, and some states decided to celebrate Thanksgiving on Nov. 30 anyway, while others did not, making it hard for many families to come together.
Public outcry led Congress to pass a law (77 H. J. Res. 41) in 1941, making the fourth Thursday in November a legal holiday, ensuring that all Americans would celebrate a unified Thanksgiving.
Why do presidents ‘pardon’ turkeys?
In 1947, President Harry S. Truman presided over the first live turkey ceremony by the Poultry and Egg National Board and the event established an annual tradition at the White House. Originally, the birds presented were intended for the Thanksgiving meal. Birds given to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s had signs around their necks that read “Good Eating Mr. President.”
Although Kennedy spared the life of his turkey in 1963, the tradition of pardoning White House turkeys can be traced back to Lincoln’s granting clemency to a bird a century before, according to the Library of Congress. Lincoln’s son Tad asked his father to spare the life of the animal, which the boy wanted for a pet.
President George H. W. Bush officially granted the first official “pardon” of a turkey in 1989, a tradition that continues today. President Joe Biden last year issued pardons to “Peanut Butter” and “Jelly,” turkeys that were then sent to live out their lives at Purdue University’s Animal Sciences Research and Education Center.
There are 12 federal holidays: New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Inauguration Day, George Washington’s birthday, Memorial Day, Juneteenth, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.
The majority of federal employees will be off work on Thursday, Nov. 24, this year to honor Thanksgiving Day, a federal holiday.
Is Black Friday a federal holiday?
Thanksgiving Day has a long association with the retail, food and travel industries in the U.S.
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which gets underway at 9 a.m. EDT on Nov. 24 and ends at the front doors of the eponymous department store in New York City, got its start in 1924. The three-hour parade famously features celebrities on floats, marching bands and colossal balloons in the shape of Warner Bros. Discovery and Disney cartoon characters and other media properties and has been broadcast nationally for a half-century by Comcast’s NBC.
Santa Claus always brings up the rear, a reminder that the holiday shopping season is upon us.
The day after Thanksgiving Day has come to be known as “Black Friday,” the unofficial first day of holiday shopping in the U.S. Once synonymous with “door buster” sales that sent millions of American streaming to shopping malls and “big box” stores, the annual, media-hyped consumer frenzy was occasionally marred by fistfights over discounted goods, pre-dawn shopper stampedes and even deaths.
Online shopping and discounting spread out over many weeks has more or less done away with the need to race to the mall, though Black Friday sales continue and retailers still count on the day, which many federal and private sector workers take off, as a revenue driver. Still, Black Friday isn’t a federal holiday.
With special thanks to the Library of Congress, whose website provided much of the information above.