Thanksgiving Through the Years

first thanksgiving paintingBy Morgan Griffith

Every November, families and friends gather across the country to give thanks for the many blessings they have received during the year.

A holiday that many look forward to every year didn’t always have such a predictable nature. It took almost a century and a half for Thanksgiving to be what it is today. Some of our country’s most influential presidents even played a hand in establishing Thanksgiving as the holiday we know today.

As some may know, the first thanksgiving was celebrated in Virginia in 1619, when a group of 35 settlers and their leader, Captain John Woodlief, set sail from England for the New World, bound for land in Virginia along the James River. This settlement would be known as Berkeley Hundred. This was two years before the pilgrims held their Thanksgiving in Massachusetts.

Sailing into the Chesapeake Bay on November 28, the group lingered in that area for a few days, weathering a fierce storm, before arriving at Berkeley Hundred on December 4.

Once on shore, Captain Woodlief prayed, offering words that had actually been provided by the Berkeley Company which funded the settlement: “We ordaine that this day of our ships arrival, at the place assigned for plantacon, in the land of Virginia, shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.” Unfortunately, the Berkeley Hundred settlement would last only a few years due to attacks by Native Americans.

Later, in 1777, following the Battles at Saratoga, which were pivotal to America receiving the foreign assistance it needed to win the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress declared the first national American Thanksgiving.

Then, in 1789, President George Washington proclaimed Thursday, November 26, as a day of “public thanksgiving and prayer” dedicated to “the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, and that will be.”

Though Washington had declared a national thanksgiving in 1789, the holiday had not yet caught on throughout the country and was mainly celebrated in New England.

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln designated a national “day of Thanksgiving and praise,” thanks in large part due to the actions by American writer and activist Sarah Joseph Hale. Mrs. Hale is perhaps best known as the author of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

In addition to many Members of Congress and Governors, Mrs. Hale wrote to five presidents before Lincoln, failing to persuade them to support a national holiday. Finally, after 17 years of advocacy, President Lincoln was persuaded to designate the final Thursday in November as Thanksgiving.

Mrs. Hale is also believed to be responsible for popularizing the Thanksgiving menu. One of the chapters in her novel Northwood: Or, a Tale of New England, is dedicated to describing the dishes of Thanksgiving, including turkey, gravy, stuffing, pumpkin pie, among others.

With the help of Lincoln’s declaration, Thanksgiving became a nationally celebrated holiday. It became federally recognized by Congress in 1870.

In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared November 23 as Thanksgiving, the next to last Thursday that year. It is said that President Roosevelt viewed Thanksgiving as too late that year and wanted to move it forward to give Americans an extra week of Christmas shopping.

Many Americans were upset by the president departing from tradition and refused to celebrate Thanksgiving on the 23rd. Critics called it “Franksgiving” (Franklin’s Thanksgiving).

Two years later, acknowledging he made a mistake and attempting to correct it, President Roosevelt signed a law designating the fourth Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day. And since 1941, Thanksgiving has since been celebrated as such.

Though it took many years for Thanksgiving to become what it is today, the spirit of the holiday has held true since the founding of our nation. We must not forget to stop to thank the Lord for our many blessings and to thank loved ones for their support and guidance in our lives.

As always, I pray that everyone has a safe and happy Thanksgiving.

If you have questions, concerns, or comments, feel free to contact my office. You can call my Abingdon office at 276-525-1405 or my Christiansburg office at 540-381-5671. To reach my office via email, please visit my website at Also on my website is the latest material from my office, including information on votes recently taken on the floor of the House of Representatives.