The word Thanksgiving evokes images of roasted turkey with stuffing, pumpkin pie, family reunions and football. The 54 Pilgrims and 90 Wampanoag Indians are the acknowledged founders of the American feast.
In 1621, when their labors were rewarded with a bountiful harvest after a year of sickness and scarcity, the Pilgrims gave thanks to God and celebrated His bounty in the English tradition with feasting and sport. Thanksgiving became a regular event by the middle of the 17th century and it was proclaimed each autumn by the individual Colonies.
The Continental Congress proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving in 1777. Later, Presidents Washington, Adams and Monroe proclaimed national Thanksgivings, but the custom fell out of use by 1815, after which the celebration of the holiday was limited to individual state observances. By the 1850s, almost every state and territory celebrated Thanksgiving.
Many people felt that this family holiday should be a national celebration, especially Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of the popular women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book. In 1827, she began a campaign to reinstate the holiday after the model of the first Presidents. She petitioned several Presidents to make it an annual event. Her efforts finally succeeded in 1863, when she was able to convince President Lincoln that a national Thanksgiving might serve to unite a war-torn country. The President declared two national Thanksgivings that year, one for August 6 celebrating the victory at Gettysburg and a second for the last Thursday in November.
A President still had to proclaim Thanksgiving each year, and the last Thursday in November became the customary date. In a controversial move, Franklin Delano Roosevelt lengthened the Christmas shopping season by declaring Thanksgiving for the next-to-the-last Thursday in November. Two years later, in 1941, Congress responded by permanently establishing the holiday as the fourth Thursday in the month.
Six years later, sports were reincorporated into the tradition in1869, when the first American football game was played on Thanksgiving between Rutgers and Princeton.
Of course, each family, extended family and groups of friends have their own traditions that personalize the holiday. Camino Real Playhouse has a 27-year tradition of opening their Christmas production on the day after Thanksgiving which lends a festive air to the rest of the year.