One year after their arrival in the New World, the Pilgrims celebrated what is widely considered America's first Thanksgiving in November 1621. Two years later, on Nov. 29, 1623, the governor of Plymouth Colony, William Bradford, officially proclaimed the first day of Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving was observed sporadically after that. John Hancock, for instance, issued a proclamation for a day of thanksgiving on Nov. 8, 1783, to celebrate the victory over the British.
On Nov. 26, 1789, President George Washington issued the first proclamation of a national day of thanksgiving (above). He wanted it to be a day of prayer and thanks to God, a day that would be celebrated by all religions.
President Lincoln went a step further by establishing the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day. He had been urged to do this by Sarah Josepha Hale, influential founder of Godey's Lady's Book, a magazine. She wrote editorials and letters for decades calling for such a holiday. Lincoln established the tradition in November 1863 by proclamation.
Later presidents followed suit, though Franklin Roosevelt created an uproar in 1939. He moved Thanksgiving from the last Thursday in November to the next-to-last to encourage holiday shopping.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society