Although I’m from New Zealand, my mother is American and my family gets together with other American Kiwis to celebrate Thanksgiving each year. However, as there is no public holiday for this day, we tend to need to improvise with dates, with Thanksgiving dinner generally occurring on a weekend some time between October and January. (Note that eating a huge turkey dinner in summer leads to even more sleepiness than normal!) Since moving to the U.S. I’ve become interested in knowing more about why we get particular days off for federal holidays during the year, and decided to do a little research on the legal history of the Thanksgiving holiday…
The Federal Thanksgiving Day holiday was established in 1941 following the passage of a joint resolution, H.J. Res. 41, by the House of Representatives on October 6, 1941, declaring the “last Thursday in November a legal holiday.” The Senate then passed an amendment “making the fourth Thursday in November a legal holiday.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the resolution on December 6, 1941, with the law taking effect from 1942.
This action by Congress followed the making of various proclamations by different states and Presidents regarding Thanksgiving, including:
- A proclamation by the General Court held at Boston on October 2, 1678, declaring November 21, 1678, to be a day of fasting and prayer.
- A proclamation by the Governor of Connecticut appointing Wednesday, November 8, 1721, as a day of “publick thanksgiving” to be observed throughout the colony.
- General Orders issued by George Washington on November 30, 1777, setting aside December 18 for “Solemn Thanksgiving and Praise.” Following this, the Continental Congress made a proclamation on October 11, 1782, recommending the observation of a day of public thanksgiving, and Washington made another proclamation as president on October 3, 1789, proclaiming November 26 of that year to be a day of national thanksgiving and prayer after he received Congressional requests for such a decree.
On October 3, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation inviting American citizens to “set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving.” After this proclamation, Thanksgiving was regularly commemorated each year on the last Thursday of November. For example:
- A proclamation by President Theodore Roosevelt designated Thursday, November 28, 1901, “as a day of general thanksgiving.”
- A proclamation by the Governor of California made Thursday, November 24, 1904, a public holiday.
- A proclamation by the Governor of Delaware designated Thursday, November 30, 1922, as Thanksgiving Day.
(I found many other Thanksgiving Day proclamations on the Library’s website. Try searching for “Thanksgiving proclamation” in the American Memory section.)
As occurred in 1922, the last Thursday of November 1939 fell on the last day of the month. The National Archives website states that:
Concerned that the shortened Christmas shopping season might dampen the economic recovery, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a Presidential Proclamation moving Thanksgiving to the second to last Thursday of November. As a result of the proclamation, 32 states issued similar proclamations while 16 states refused to accept the change and proclaimed Thanksgiving to be the last Thursday in November. For two years two days were celebrated as Thanksgiving – the President and part of the nation celebrated it on the second to last Thursday in November, while the rest of the country celebrated it the following week.
The 1941 resolution was aimed at ending this confusion, with the fourth Thursday chosen by the Senate in order to “take into account those years when November has five Thursdays.”
Happy Thanksgiving from the In Custodia Legis team and the Law Library (and from our colleagues at In the Muse too!).