The Thanksgiving holiday is rooted in Pilgrims who came to the shores of Massachusetts in 1621 from Amsterdam and Leiden. In 1621, the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast that is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations. During the early colonial period, various days of thanksgiving were celebrated.
Just one day after the First Amendment was proposed, the first Congress urged President George Washington to proclaim a day of public thanksgiving and prayer. President Washington declared November 26, 1789, a national day of thanksgiving to “offer our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions.”
In the first Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamation available here from the Library of Congress, President Washington, stated that “I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States 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– That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks.”
Although Thomas Jefferson broke from this practice when he served as President, both John Adams and James Madison designated special days for Thanksgiving and prayer. See David E. Steinberg, The Myth of Church-State Separation, 59 Clev. St. L. Rev. 623 (2011).
While governors and other officials declared days of Thanksgiving after Madison’s proclamation in 1815, there is no record that any of the next eleven presidents recognized a national day of Thanksgiving. It was not until the Civil War when President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation to “the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies . . . [i]n the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity” that another president would engage in such activity. See Michael Newdow, Question to Justice Scalia: Does the Establishment Clause Permit the Disregard of Devout Catholics?, 38 Cap. U. L. Rev. 409, 453 (2009).
Lincoln established the modern holiday as a day of Thanksgiving that included a national day of prayer. The Thanksgiving holiday was established by President Abraham Lincoln “as a day of family unity that would emulate the ideals of the Pilgrims.” Every President since Lincoln has since recognized Thanksgiving. Congress has designated the fourth Thursday in November as “Thanksgiving Day” as a recognized federal holiday. See 5 U.S.C. § 6103.
In 1989, President George H.W. Bush started the tradition of an official presidential pardon for the National Thanksgiving Turkey. In 2012, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking him to skip the annual Thanksgiving turkey pardon. It will be interesting to see how Thanksgiving will continue to change and evolve in the coming years.