November 2006


On October 3, 1789, George Washington proclaimed a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, set for Thursday, November 26, 1789. The U.S. Constitution had been in effect for a little over a year (ratified on June 21, 1788) and Washington had only been president for five months (inaugurated on April 30, 1789). Washington felt that it was time to acknowledge Almighty God for his favor and aid in helping the people successfully establish a government preserving the safety and happiness of the people of the United States.


Sarah Hale (1788–1879) was one year old at the time of Washington’s day of thanksgiving. The autodidact Hale began her career as a writer after becoming a widow at the age of 34. Hale published poetry and the novel Northwood before being invited to serve as editor of The Ladies Magazine. Soon, she advanced to become editor of Godsey’s Lady Book. This publication became the largest in America by the 1850s. Hale may be best known today as author of the nursery rhyme Mary Had a Little Lamb.


Affectionately named “The Lady Editor,” Hale believed that an annual, nationally celebrated day of thanksgiving was needed for its “deep moral influence.” She felt there were too few holidays for coming together and rejoicing. Hale wrote thousands of letters during her almost 40-year campaign to bring Thanksgiving to its rightful place as a full-fledged holiday. Finally, in 1863, with the country ravaged by war, Hale prevailed upon Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had taken effect on January 1 of that year, so the timing was right to urge the country to come together and celebrate our freedoms and blessings.


On October 3, 1863, Lincoln proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving to be held on the last Thursday of each November. Lincoln purposely presented his proclamation on the same calendar day as George Washington presented his three score and 14 years earlier.


In 1933 and 1939, Thanksgiving fell on November 30. The Great Depression was already devastating the country’s economy, and having only 24 shopping days for Christmas was more than retailers could bear. FDR recognized the benefit of changing Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday in November instead of the last Thursday in November.


Unfortunately, FDR announced the change in August 1939, just three months before Thanksgiving. Much scrambling was necessary to adjust travel plans and work schedules. Retailers were ecstatic for the extra week of sales, but the mayor of Atlantic City felt that a long tradition should not be altered to make retailers happy. He dubbed the holiday “Franksgiving.” We’ll have those extra seven days again this year, so when you’re sitting around the Thanksgiving table, be thankful to FDR for all those extra shopping days he gave us.