A tailing tale of Thanksgiving

It wasn’t always a holiday

By Maggie Magoffin

The holiday of Thanksgiving is based on the 1621 feast in Plymouth. However for many years it was not an annual celebration or holiday. Thanksgiving was celebrated on sporadic dates, usually declared locally to give thanks for a specific event such as the end of a drought, victory in battle, or after a harvest.

In October 1777, all 13 colonies celebrated a day of Thanksgiving. However, the first celebration of Thanksgiving as a U.S. National holiday was proclaimed by George Washington in 1789 when he declared the holiday to be Thursday, November 26th. The day was set aside as a day of “public thanksgiving and prayer” to give thanks for the opportunity to form a new nation and the establishment of a new constitution. For the next 86 years, however, Thanksgiving was not an annual celebration.

For 40 years prior to the Civil War, Sarah Josepha Hale, advocated for a national, annual Thanksgiving holiday. She believed the holiday was a way to infuse hope and belief in the nation and the constitution. When the country was torn in half during the Civil War, Lincoln was searching for a way to bring the nation together, and he discussed the matter with Sarah Hale.

On October 3, 1863, President Lincoln issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation declaring the last Thursday in November to be a day of “thanksgiving and praise.” For the first time in U.S. history Thanksgiving became a national holiday with a specific date. Union governors and the governor of the Colorado Territory followed with their own proclamations, following Mr. Lincoln’s declared date and purpose.

For 75 years after Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation, succeeding presidents honored the tradition and annually issued their own Thanksgiving Proclamation declaring the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving. That is until 1939 when FDR changed it to the second-to-the-last Thursday.

The world had suffered in the Great Depression for a decade and the Second World War had erupted in Europe. The U.S. economy looked bleak. That year, the last Thursday in November was November 30th. Retailers complained to President Roosevelt that this only left 24 shopping days to Christmas and begged him to push Thanksgiving up one week earlier, hoping with the extra week of shopping people would buy more.

FDR announced in his Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1939 the date of Thanksgiving to be Thursday, November 23rd, the second to the last Thursday of the month.

The new date caused much confusion. Calendars were now incorrect. Schools who planned vacations and tests had to reschedule. Thanksgiving had been a big day for football games, so the games had to be rescheduled.

Political opponents to FDR and many others questioned the president’s right to change the holiday and stressed the breaking of precedent and disregard for tradition. Atlantic City’s mayor derogatorily called November 23rd “Franksgiving.” In spite of FDR’s proclamation, many states continued to celebrate the holiday on the last Thursday in November. Colorado and Texas celebrated Thanksgiving twice that year. First on November 23rd and again on November 30th. This decision caused numerous problems, including conflicts in family celebrations. Not everyone had the same day off work.

In 1940, FDR again announced Thanksgiving to be second-to-the-last Thursday of the month. Thirty-one states followed him with the earlier date and 17 kept the traditional date. Confusion over two Thanksgivings continued.

Lincoln established the Thanksgiving holiday to bring the country together, but the muddle over the date change was tearing our nation apart.

Finally, on December 26, 1941, Congress passed a law declaring Thanksgiving to be celebrated annually on the fourth Thursday of November.

(Source: How FDR Changed Thanksgiving)

From Maggie: My “Misadventures of the Cholua Brothers Series” Book 1- “Dead Man Walking,” and Book 2 -“Pistols and Petticoats” can now be purchased from the Cholua Brother’s Coffee section in Mountain Menagerie on Main Street in Central City. Copies of “Dead Man Walking” are available at the Gilpin County History Museum. Copies of either book can be purchased on my website at,, and

Please plan to stop by and see me at this year’s annual Tommy Knocker Bazaar, Saturday, December 5th and Sunday December 6th, at the historic Teller House in Central City.

If you have stories about your historical home, your own interesting experiences in Gilpin County or your family history, please email them to me at:; mail them to me at: Maggie Magoffin, P.O. Box 746495, Arvada, Colorado, 80006-6495, or call me at 303-881-3321.

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