November 26, 1789 — Although Americans commonly trace the Thanksgiving holiday to a 1621 celebration at the Plymouth Plantation — as depicted in this 1899 oil on canvas by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (at right) — the first official celebration of Thanksgiving is held in the United States in 1789.
Following a resolution of Congress, President George Washington proclaimed it a day of “public thanksgiving and prayer” devoted to “the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”
Subsequent presidents issued Thanksgiving Proclamations, but the dates and even months of the celebrations varied. It wasn’t until President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Proclamation that Thanksgiving was regularly commemorated each year on the last Thursday of November.
In 1939, however, the last Thursday in November fell on the last day of the month. Concerned that the shortened Christmas shopping season might dampen the economic recovery, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a Presidential Proclamation moving Thanksgiving to the second to last Thursday of November.
Soon after, 32 states issued similar amendments — but 16 states refused to accept the change and proclaimed Thanksgiving to be the last Thursday in November. For two years, Thanksgiving was celebrated on two different days: The president and part of the nation celebrated it on the second to last Thursday in November, while the rest of the country celebrated it the following week.
To end the confusion, Congress set a fixed date for the holiday on Oct. 6, 1941, when the House passed a joint resolution declaring the last Thursday in November to be the legal Thanksgiving Day. The Senate changed the resolution, establishing it on the fourth Thursday to account for years when November has five Thursdays. The House agreed to the amendment.
President Roosevelt signed the resolution on Dec. 26, 1941, thus establishing the fourth Thursday in November as the federal Thanksgiving Day holiday.
Words of Wisdom
Thanksgiving Proclamation Issued by President George Washington, at the request of Congress, on October 3, 1789
Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and — Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me to 'recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.'