In a 1789 proclamation, President George Washington called on the people of the United States to acknowledge God for affording them "an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness" by observing a day of thanksgiving. Devoting a day to "public thanksgiving and prayer," as Washington called it, became a yearly tradition in many communities.
Thanksgiving became a national holiday in 1863. In that year, during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln made his Thanksgiving Day Proclamation. He asked his fellow citizens to "to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise . . ."
It was not until 1941 that Congress designated the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day, thus creating a federal holiday.
However official, the idea of a special day for giving thanks was not born of presidential proclamations. Native American harvest festivals had been celebrated for centuries, and colonial services dated back to the late 16th century. Thanksgiving Day, as we know it today, began in the early 1600s when settlers in both Massachusetts and Virginia came together to give thanks for their survival, for the fertility of their fields, and for their faith. The most widely known early Thanksgiving is that of the Pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts, who feasted for 3 days with the Wampanoag people in 1621.
Turkey has become the traditional Thanksgiving fare because at one time it was a rare treat. During the 1830s, an eight- to ten-pound bird cost a day's wages. Even though turkeys are affordable today, they still remain a celebratory symbol of bounty. In fact, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin ate roast turkey in foil packets for their first meal on the Moon. See all of our traditional Thanksgiving recipes, including classic turkey recipes!
1520: Ferdinand Magellan, traveling west from Spain, discovered what is now the Strait of Magellan, leading to the Pacific Ocean
Born 1757: William Blake (poet)
Born 1820: Friedrich Engels (philosopher)
Died 1859: Washington Irving (writer)
Born 1865: James Connolly (first champion of modern Olympics)
Born 1866: Henry Bacon (architect)
1885: Banff Hot Springs Reserve (later renamed Banff National Park) established
1895: First recorded automobile race in America. Six cars left Chicago's Jackson Park for a 54 mile race to Evanston, Illinois and back through the snow
Born 1907: Alberto Moravia (writer)
1925: Grand Ole Opry made its radio debut
Born 1929: Berry Gordy, Jr. (founder of Motown Records)
Born 1936: Gary Hart (politician)
Died 1939: James Naismith (invented game of basketball)
Born 1942: Paul Warfield (football player)
1942: In Boston, Massachusetts, a fire in the Cocoanut Grove night club killed 492 people
Born 1943: Randy Newman (singer & songwriter)
Died 1945: Dwight Davis (tennis player)
Born 1949: Paul Shaffer (musician & composer)
Born 1949: Alexander Godunov (composer, ballet dancer, & actor)
Born 1958: Dave Righetti (baseball player)
Born 1959: Judd Nelson (actor)
Born 1962: Jon Stewart (actor)
1974: John Lennon made a concert appearance at NYC's Madison Square Garden
Born 1984: Mary Elizabeth Winstead (actress)
Born 1988: Scarlett N. Pomers (actress)
Died 1993: Garry Moore (comedian)
1995: U.S. bill signed allowing states to set their own speed limits
Died 2010: Leslie Nielsen (actor)
2012: Penumbral eclipse of the Moon