National Thanksgiving began with President Lincoln

As the nation observes Thanksgiving Day today with parades and family get-togethers, Sheridan Media reporter Pat Blair takes a look at the origins of this holiday. Here’s her story.

Although we trace the roots of Thanksgiving to an autumn harvest feast shared by the Plymouth colonists and Native Americans in 1621, the truth is that a national Thanksgiving festival is much more recent.

For more than two centuries, thanksgiving days were celebrated by individual colonies and states – and instead of a feast with turkey and trimmings, thanksgiving was a day of fasting, prayers and supplications to God.

In 1789, President George Washington declared a national day of “thanksgiving and prayer” to be held on Nov. 26, but the modern Thanksgiving holiday didn’t start to take shape until the 19th century. That started, according to one source, in 1846 when Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of a magazine called Godey’s Lady’s Book, campaigned for an annual national thanksgiving holiday.

But her call wasn’t answered until 1863. In that year, President Abraham Lincoln, seeking to foster unity in a country torn by war, actually declared two national thanksgivings.

Neither of them invoked the memory of the Plymouth colonists in 1621. One was in August, to commemorate the Battle of Gettysburg. And the President declared the second thanksgiving to be observed on the last Thursday of November to give thanks for “general blessings.”

That second day became the Thanksgiving that we celebrate today.

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