Thanksgiving: Originally a spiritual, now a shopping holiday?

November 24, 2011

Today in Legal HistoryToday is Thanksgiving, a holiday we all associate with pilgrims, Indians, and a welcome to the New World.

And sure enough, Thanksgiving has its roots in the colonies during the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

In fact, the holiday’s roots run deeper in this nation than even Christmas.

The tradition had been observed by an increasing number of colonies since the first Thanksgiving, leading the Continental Congress to issue the First National Proclamation of Thanksgiving in 1777.

This Proclamation fell right in the heat of the American Revolutionary War, and, like many of the prior Thanksgivings observed, this one wasn’t characterized by joyous feasting.

Instead, it was intended to be a day of prayer and thanksgiving, and the Proclamation specifically asked for “Almighty God” to secure “independence and peace” for the United States (“the greatest of all human Blessings”).

After the war was won, George Washington, as the first U.S. President, issued another Thanksgiving Day proclamation calling on the nation to offer thanks to God for allowing them “an opportunity to peaceably establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”

Washington issued another such proclamation in 1795, and John Adams did as well in 1798 and 1799, but Thanksgiving’s invocation was often reserved for times during or immediately after a national crisis.

Thanksgivings observed through the mid-19th century, however, were irregular both in frequency and the time of the year the holiday would occur.

This changed during another great – perhaps one of the greatest – national crisis: the Civil War.

Abraham LincolnAbraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day that, like other wartime proclamations before it, asked for national help in the form of divine intervention.

Specifically, the Proclamation called on the nation to thank God for the blessings already bestowed upon it, and to “fervently implore” that God “heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it…to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity[sic], and Union.”

Since that 1863 Proclamation, the U.S. has observed Thanksgiving by Presidential Proclamation on the last Thursday of November.

That is, until it was changed in 1939 during another national crisis: the Great Depression.

However, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s approach to the situation was a bit more proactive than his predecessors’.

In 1939, a year wherein November had five Thursdays, FDR made the holiday occur earlier by proclaiming the penultimate (second-to-last) Thursday to be Thanksgiving.

At the time, and until fairly recently, it was considered in poor taste for merchants to begin advertising for Christmas shopping before Thanksgiving (it may still be considered in poor taste, but nearly all merchants today engage in this practice).

Franklin Roosevelt carving Thankgsiving turkey, 1939Roosevelt intended the switch to allow merchants more time to advertise for the Christmas season, thereby increasing consumer spending and helping the economy.

The change was strongly opposed by Republicans, calling it an insult to Lincoln’s legacy, and thus, 1939 saw two different Thanksgivings celebrated: a Republican Thanksgiving, celebrated by 16 states, and a Democratic Thanksgiving (or “Franksgiving”), celebrated by the other 32 states.

The holiday was split again the next two years, prompting Congress to take action to end the confusion, ending with a resolution signed by FDR on December 26, 1941, setting Thanksgiving on November’s fourth Thursday, which we’ve observed ever since.

The obvious irony in Thanksgiving’s history is its transition from a spiritual observance to a secularized association with the Christmas shopping season and the un-Christian* notion of materialism.

With many merchants opening their doors for Black Friday sales earlier and earlier every year, even many opening on Thanksgiving Day itself, the trend only seems to be accelerating.

Perhaps the bigger irony is that this transformation happened because a spiritual holiday was made public, thereby allowing merchants and other such interests to use the holiday to increase sales (cf. Easter and Christmas).

Could this mean that “America’s secularization” is not caused by any constitutional “separation of church and state,” but by occurrences of the opposite?

Maybe, maybe not.

But it’s Thanksgiving!  You should be eating pumpkin pie and watching football, not reading this article!

Happy Thanksgiving!

*”Un-Christian” in the general sense, not referring to any one specific denomination.