Thanksgiving as a Federal Holiday

This year the federal holiday Thanksgiving falls on November 23, the fourth Thursday of the month. But it wasn’t always so. Today’s post looks at Thanksgiving as a federal holiday and the various days it has been commemorated. To learn more about Thanksgiving and how the National Archives is celebrating, visit our website.

One of the last actions of the first Congress while meeting in New York City was to pass a resolution asking the President to recommend a day of thanksgiving. On October 3, President George Washington issued a proclamation naming Thursday, November 26, 1789, as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, and that year Thanksgiving was celebrated for the first time under the new Constitution. 

Subsequent Thanksgiving proclamations from Washington, and later James Madison, varied in dates—and even months—with celebrations in February (1795) and April (1815). But it wasn’t until Abraham Lincoln’s October 3, 1863, proclamation that a President proclaimed Thanksgiving to be celebrated on the last Thursday of November.

After Lincoln’s death in 1865, Andrew Johnson’s first Thanksgiving proclamation designated the first Thursday in December as a national day of thanksgiving. But for the remainder of his Presidency, he chose the last Thursday in November to celebrate.

In 1870, Congress passed legislation making Thanksgiving, in addition to Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, and Independence Day, as holidays within the District of Columbia. All other holidays in the legislation had fixed dates—December 25, January 1, and July 4, respectively—but for Thanksgiving the President was given discretion to set the date. For the most part, each President declared the last Thursday of November a Thanksgiving.

During Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Presidency, the last Thursday in November fell on the last day of the month twice, in 1933 and 1939. Concerned that the shortened Christmas shopping season might dampen the economic recovery, large business owners lobbied Roosevelt to move the holiday up a week. Roosevelt, however, decided to stick with precedence in 1933.

By the time it happened again in 1939, Roosevelt had been swayed enough to issue a Presidential proclamation moving Thanksgiving to the second-to-last Thursday of November. 

As a result, some states issued similar proclamations while other states refused to accept the change and proclaimed Thanksgiving to be the last Thursday in November. Some states even decided to observe the holiday on both days. 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 remainder of the country celebrated it the following week or on both days.

To end the confusion, Congress decided to set a fixed-date for the Thanksgiving holiday. On October 6, 1941, the House passed a joint resolution declaring the last Thursday in November to be the legal Thanksgiving Day. 

The Senate amended the resolution establishing the holiday as the fourth Thursday, which would take into account those years when November has five Thursdays. The House agreed to the amendment, and President Roosevelt signed the resolution on December 26, 1941, establishing the fourth Thursday in November as the federal Thanksgiving Day holiday. The law went into effect the following year. 

Since then, Presidents make annual Proclamations proclaiming the fourth Thursday in November a national day of Thanksgiving, and encourage Americans to join together to give thanks for friends, family, neighbors, and even strangers.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Read more about President Roosevelt’s decision to move the Thanksgiving holiday in the Prologue magazine article, Thanksgiving: Another FDR Experiment.

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