Last Thursday of November

November 24th, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving! I hope this finds you well fed and enjoying time with family or friends.

We all know that Thanksgiving is a celebration of the Pilgrims and their first successful harvest (thanks in large part to the friendly Native American Indians who helped them). But have you ever wondered why we celebrate it on the last Thursday in November? Especially since that’s not when historians think the Pilgrims’ original Thanksgiving actually took place?

Thanksgiving Dinner

Illustration by Frank Leslie, from a collection of his Civil War illustrations published in 1896 (from Clip Art Etc.)

It’s all due to Sarah Josepha Hale, the editrix of popular woman’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book. She spent more than a decade writing editorials and agitating for the official adoption of the Thanksgiving holiday. Here’s an excerpt from her 1861 harangue, I mean plea:

“The way is already prepared; for the last ten years or more the idea of our American national Thanksgiving has been gradually growing in favor and becoming an observance in all our States and Territories. The last Thursday in November has thus been known as the American Festival Day, and for the last three years has been observed by Americans in European cities and wherever our countrymen could meet together. It has been kept on board our fleets in the Mediterranean, African, and Brazilian stations; our missionaries in India, China, Africa have approved of this festival, and last year it was observed by our countrymen in Japan. Hon. Townsend Harris, American ambassador to that empire, inclosed in a letter to us his proclamation setting apart, in conformity with American custom, the last Thursday in November as a day of public Thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

Until S. J. Hale began her campaign, the American feast of Thanksgiving had been celebrated unofficially on different dates in different places for centuries. Official declarations of the holiday had been limited to single occurrences. She was finally able to declare victory when President Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a permanent national holiday in 1863. It was hoped that the new holiday might help bring peace to the Civil-War-torn nation.

I just did the math: this year, America celebrates her 148th Thanksgiving. Hurrah for Sarah Josepha Hale! Hurrah for Abraham Lincoln! Hurrah for the Pilgrims!

As the sign outside the restaurant that took over the old punk rock club CBGB in NYC says, “Gobble Gobble Hey!”*

*Apologies to anyone who doesn’t get this joke.