President Franklin Delano Roosevelt – FDR – inserted Thanksgiving into the national conversation in 1941 when he signed a new law setting the fourth Thursday in November as the official celebration day. He knew that America could not sit on the sidelines and be a mere spectator as the forces of good and evil battled each other across the globe. Europe had been at war since 1939, Paris had fallen to the Nazis in June 1940 and by September Germany was focused on bombing London and possibly invading the island nation. Sitting safely in their homes, citizens of all ages, parties and backgrounds huddled around their radios each day to hear Edward R. Murrow report from London as air raid sirens screamed and terror bombs fell on civilians and institutions. The voice from the CBS Radio Network correspondent was gripping and the country slowly began to realize it could not escape history much longer.
On February 9, 1941 Winston Churchill ended a broadcast to the British people and the United States with these words:
President Roosevelt: Put your confidence in us. Give us your faith and your blessing, and, under Providence, all will be well.
We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle, nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down.
Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.
The United States was just months away from Pearl Harbor and the President needed a symbol of national unity that all Americans would understand and rally around. None was better than Thanksgiving.
The American Civil War was raging in October 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November. He understood its powerful message of unity and he needed an occasion that would remind citizens of their common heritage. The next month he stood before a crowd at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and lamented that “we are now engaged in a great civil war” testing whether “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” can long endure.
When he was reelected the following year, he asked citizens to move forward with “malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.” Shortly after his death the following month, the arduous task of reconstruction began and in the fall families from both sides of the Mason Dixon Line paused for a meal of thanks and pondered the importance of courage, teamwork and optimism in the face of adversity. Reuniting a divided nation would not be easy, but the Pilgrim-Wampanoag celebration was a good place to start.
GEORGE WASHINGTON / 1789
In 1789, George Washington became the first president to proclaim Thanksgiving an official holiday, following a request from Congress. The United States was still a very new nation and it needed its citizens to work with common purpose, regardless of background, just as the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag did 168 years earlier. The lessons of teamwork and collaboration that produced the First Thanksgiving were essential for the survival of the country.
FIRST THANKSGIVING / 1621
Thanksgiving is the nation’s oldest and most popular holiday. It is not religious or historical, like Christmas and July 4th, Independence Day, but rather a tribute to what can be accomplished when people of different backgrounds work together with common purpose.
The event that Americans commonly call the “First Thanksgiving” took place in October 1621, lasted three days and was held because the English settlers and the Wampanoag had worked together successfully to assure the immigrants’ survival. All this was documented by Edward Winslow (pictured below) in a letter to a friend that year. In 21st century terms, the festival was held because teamwork and collaboration worked.
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