Musings for the Hill, Nov. 25, 2015
“Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go. The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh, through the white and drifted snow. We seem to go extremely slow. It is so hard to wait. Hooray for the fun, is the pudding done? Hooray for Thanksgiving Day!” So goes the old, old song.
Thanksgiving is probably our oldest universally celebrated holiday in America. Where and when it was first declared a holiday is much disputed. The Pilgrims were not the first to declare a day to give thanks for safe passage to a new life in a new land when they safely landed in New England at Plymouth Rock in 1620.
President Abraham Lincoln was persuaded by the editor of Godey’s Ladies Book, Sara Hale, to proclaim a national Thanksgiving Day. Both North and South agreed and the last Thursday of November was designated for giving thanks for our national’s many blessings. This left only a few weeks to prepare for Christmas festivities. Some of us remember a carton of an indignant turkey jumping from date to date on a November calendar during the Great Depression. President Franklin Roosevelt, hoping to engender more business, set back Thanksgiving Day in order to extend the Christmas shopping season.
In 1940, Roosevelt ran for an unprecedented third term and repeated the Thanksgiving switch. There was little gain in business and many people resented change in times of uncertainty. Roosevelt admitted he, too, missed observing Thanksgiving on the traditional day. Once again he switched, returning Thanksgiving to its original date. Congress passed a resolution permanently designating the fourth Thursday in November as a Thanksgiving Day.
But controversy arose, and again it involved a president from a northern state. President John F. Kennedy, in his Thanksgiving Day address, was accused of ignoring an even earlier celebration in the South. Virginia protested this oversight. They claimed the first Thanksgiving was held at Berkeley Hundred Plantation in Virginian in 1619.
The White House apologized and the following year Kennedy’s proclamation began: “over three centuries ago, our forefathers in Virginia and Massachusetts, far from home in a lonely wilderness, set aside a time for thanksgiving…”
This ended the controversy, but when and where was Thanksgiving Day first celebrated in America?
In 1609, the Virginia colony had 490 people. A terrible winter ensued and only 60 people were still alive in the spring. According to records, nine years later, after surviving tremendous privations, the remaining settlers at Berkeley Hundred voted to have the rest annual Thanksgiving celebration on Dec. 14, 1619. That was 10 years before the Plymouth Colony left England.
Maine now enters the picture. In 1606, King James divided land between what is now Cape Fear, North Carolina, into two companies. The London Company settled in Jamestown, Virginia. Plymouth Company settled in Popham Beach, Maine. Forty-five settlers built shelters, a storehouse, fort and a church. In the winter of 1608 the store-house burned. A ship arrived bringing more settlers. It is documented that after safely landing, they held a Thanksgiving celebration in the fall of 1607. Their celebration preceded both the Berkeley Hundred and Plymouth celebrations. The settlement lasted only 13 months before survivors returned to England.