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Thanksgiving tradition more than 150 years old

Published 10:07am Thursday, November 28, 2013

For more than 150 years a nationwide day of thanksgiving has been observed in the United States, but the roots of the tradition extend even further into ­history.

Most Americans are familiar with the story of the members of an English Puritan sect who fled to Holland to escape religious persecution, and later set out on a pilgrimage to the “New World.” Those pilgrims traveled aboard the Mayflower and Dec. 11, 1620 landed at Plymouth Rock.

Nearly half of the settlers died because of the privations of the ensuing months. But a bountiful harvest the following autumn (1621), prompted the survivors to celebrate and give thanks, along with the Native Americans who had helped the newcomers. The three-day feast was reminiscent of traditional English harvest festivals.

There was no thanksgiving observance the following year, but another was held in 1623. A third day of thanksgiving at Plymouth Rock wasn’t proclaimed until 1676.

More than a century passed before the custom was revived on a large scale. In Oct. 1777, the 13 original colonies participated in a thanksgiving celebration. It was also a one-time event.

President George Wash­ington was the moving force behind the first officially proclaimed national day of thanksgiving in 1789. A proclamation signed by Washington declared that the observance be held on Thursday, Nov. 26, of that year.

Subsequent presidents weren’t supportive of the idea, but in 1863 President Abraham Lincoln followed Washington’s example and decreed a national day of Thanksgiving the last Thursday of November.

Every president who followed Lincoln continued the tradition, although the date sometimes varied.

President Franklin D. Roose­velt drew public criticism when he changed the celebration to the third Thursday in November to prolong the Christmas shopping season. Two years later he moved it back to the fourth Thursday.

In 1941, Congress declared Thanksgiving a legal national holiday to be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November each year.

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