History

Why is Thanksgiving the 4th Thursday in November?

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Unlike Christmas, which always falls on December 25 each year, regardless of the day of the week, Thanksgiving does not have a specific date. To determine the date, you have to pull out a calendar and make calculations to find which Thursday of the month will be the holiday. When did so much effort get involved in determining Turkey Day? It wasn’t always so complicated, but historic events led to the date sticking to the fourth Thursday of November.

The First Festival

Thanksgiving turkey

Photo: Flickr/Tim Sackton

The first Thanksgiving feast was little more than a standard, annual festival held by the Puritans after bringing in the harvest. At the time, they didn’t even call it a Thanksgiving, because to the religious Puritans, a thanksgiving was associated with a holy time of prayer and fasting – a far cry from the feast of today. Thanksgiving wasn’t even established as a regular holiday until President Washington called for a day of public thanksgiving on a date set by presidential proclamation.

U.S. Presidents and the Official Celebrations

Thanksgiving has been closely linked to Presidential proclamations.

Photo: www.archives.gov

For years, the president determined the annual date of Thanksgiving, but not every president issued a proclamation to celebrate the day. It would not be until President Lincoln that it became an annual event. At the time, the country was embattled in the Civil War and in dire need of some cheer. Thanks to a series of letters from Sarah Hale to the president, Lincoln decreed that every year, the holiday would be celebrated on the last Thursday of November. It remained so for many years until President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The Fourth Thursday of November

Thanksgiving dinner in the Navy

Photo: navylive.dodlive.mil

In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt celebrated Turkey Day in the White House, but many across the country would not feast until the following Thursday, which would be the last of November. This was the second time during his presidency that the last Thursday of the month fell on the 30th, which gave retailers only 24 days of selling Christmas gifts. So, in 1939, the president decided to celebrate on the second-to-last Thursday of November, hoping the rest of the country would follow suit. When they didn’t after two years, in 1941, he passed a law that the holiday would be the fourth Thursday of the month to allow unity in the holiday and give shoppers and businesses enough shopping time until Christmas.

References:

Wikipedia: Thanksgiving

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