Thanksgiving, or Thanksgiving Day, is a holiday celebrated in the United States on the fourth Thursday in November. It became an official Federal holiday in 1863, when, during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens”, to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November. Also, there are reports that the original Thanksgiving proclamation was signed by George Washington. As a federal and public holiday in the U.S., Thanksgiving is one of the major holidays of the year. Together with Christmas and New Year, Thanksgiving is a part of the broader holiday season.
The event that Americans commonly call the “First Thanksgiving” was celebrated by the Pilgrims after their first harvest in the New World in 1621. This feast lasted three days, and it was attended by 90 Native Americans (as accounted by attendee Edward Winslow) and 53 Pilgrims. The New England colonists were accustomed to regularly celebrating “thanksgivings”—days of prayer thanking God for blessings such as military victory or the end of a drought.
On October 6, 1941, both houses of the U.S. Congress passed a joint resolution fixing the traditional last-Thursday date for the holiday beginning in 1942. However, in December of that year the Senate passed an amendment to the resolution that split the difference by requiring that Thanksgiving be observed annually on the fourth Thursday of November, which was sometimes the last Thursday and sometimes (less frequently) the next to last. The amendment also passed the House, and on December 26, 1941, President Roosevelt signed this bill, for the first time making the date of Thanksgiving a matter of federal law and fixing the day as the fourth Thursday of November. However, for several years some states continued to observe the last-Thursday date in years with five November Thursdays (the next such year being 1944), with Texas doing so as late as 1956.
Since 1947, the National Turkey Federation has presented the President of the United States with one live turkey and two dressed turkeys, in a ceremony known as the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation. John F. Kennedy was the first president reported to spare the turkey given to him (he announced he didn’t plan to eat the bird), and Ronald Reagan was the first to grant the turkey a presidential pardon, which he jokingly presented to his 1987 turkey (a turkey that would indeed be spared and sent to a petting zoo) in order to deflect questions regarding the Iran–Contra affair. George H. W. Bush, who served as vice president under Reagan, made the turkey pardon a permanent annual tradition upon assuming the presidency in 1989, a tradition that has been carried on by every president each year since. The pardoned turkeys are typically sent to a farm to be pampered for the remainder of their lives (a time scale typically on the order of months, since most domestic turkeys have been bred to grow so much that they die within two years of birth).
There are legends that state that the “pardoning” tradition dates to the Harry Truman administration or even to an anecdote of Abraham Lincoln pardoning his son’s pet turkey; both stories have been quoted in more recent presidential speeches, but neither has any evidence in the Presidential record. In more recent years, two turkeys have been pardoned, in case the original turkey becomes unavailable for presidential pardoning.
Wikipedia contributors, “Thanksgiving (United States),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed November 19, 2014).
“The First Thanksgiving cph.3g04961” by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3g04961.Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
“John F. Kennedy, turkey pardon” by Robert L. Knudsen – This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the ARC Identifier (National Archives Identifier) 6817150. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.