Thanksgiving began in 1621 when the Pilgrims invited the Wampanoag Indians to join them in celebration of the fall harvest. The Pilgrims had fled religious persecution in England a year earlier and had lost many of their group during the travels overseas and subsequent harsh winter. After harvest, they paused to thank God. The Indians traveled for several days to join them, created their own camp and stayed for three days of feasting and celebration.
The holiday received official status in 1789, with George Washington’s first presidential proclamation, which designated the 26th day of November next to be set aside for a time of Thanksgiving. “It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God and to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor,” he wrote.
In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared a day of Thanksgiving after the Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, even while the nation was still divided. “I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens,” he wrote.
“And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged,…