National Feast

Published 10/17 2012 02:11PM

Updated 10/17 2012 02:13PM

The Continental Congress proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving in 1777. A somber event, it specifically recommended "that servile labor and such recreations (although at other times innocent) may be unbecoming the purpose of this appointment [and should] be omitted on so solemn an occasion."

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 influential 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 publicly petitioned several Presidents to make it an annual event. Sarah Josepha Hale's 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.

Neither Lincoln nor his successors, however, made the holiday a fixed annual event. 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.

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