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Thanksgiving: the movable feast

Post Independent Writer

We all know that today is Thanksgiving Day – it’s always the fourth Thursday in November, right? No, that hasn’t always been the case.The first Thanksgiving, according to tradition, was celebrated in early December, 1621 (a year after the Pilgrims had landed at Plymouth, Mass.), by the half of the original settlers who survived that first year. Thanksgiving continued to be observed, principally in the New England Colonies (later States), but at dates set independently by each of them. This continued until 1863, when President Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a national day of Thanksgiving. In 1939, President Roosevelt changed Thanksgiving to the 3rd Thursday in November, which created both confusion and controversy, with some states sticking with the last Thursday, and Texas – as I recall it – choosing to observe both dates. In 1941, Congress decreed that henceforth Thanksgiving would be on the 4th Thursday of November.Until the 1950s, Thanksgiving was a one-day event – the Friday after (and often Saturday as well) being a workday. Thanksgiving has typically been a day for family and friends to get together. But in the decades after World War II, family members got spread out farther and farther apart, and as a result it became increasingly difficult for them to get together for a one-day holiday. In response to this problem, it soon became common practice to make the Friday after Thanksgiving a day off, making Thanksgiving a four-day holiday, resulting in Thanksgiving becoming the biggest family holiday of the year.But what about our other holidays? Christmas, New Year’s Day, and the Fourth of July, were immutable, and have never been tinkered with. Labor Day has been on the fist Monday in September ever since it became a national holiday in 1894; Armistice Day (now called Veterans’ Day) has been observed on November 11, the date of the end of World War I in 1918, ever since; and Easter has always been on Sunday, but which Sunday, between March 22 and April 25, you have to be an astronomer to be able to figure out.But other holidays are no longer being observed on the dates they were when I was a kid growing up in the 1930s. Washington’s birthday was on his birthday, Feb. 22; Memorial Day was on May 30; Columbus Day was Oct. 12, the date he set foot on the first land he sighted in the Western Hemisphere; and there was not yet a Martin Luther King Day.Memorial Day, like Thanksgiving, has a mobile history. Originally called Decoration Day, it was first observed in the Confederacy while the Civil War was still being waged as a day in Spring to decorate with flowers the graves of South’s fallen soldiers, who before the war was over would amount to one out of every six who fought for their cause. The North adopted the custom in 1868, selecting May 30, which, in time, came to be known as Memorial Day. However for several decades the States of the former Confederacy refused to commemorate Memorial Day, and continued to observe Decoration Day, but on a different date. Many of them chose June 3, which was the birth date of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States. By 1971 the animosity left over from the Civil War had subsided enough that Memorial Day became a federal holiday, and the date was changed to the last Monday in May to create a 3-day holiday.Similarly, Washington’s Birthday, commonly called President’s Day, is now the third Monday in February, Columbus Day is now the second Monday in October, and the third Monday in January has been proclaimed as Martin Luther King’s birthday. But I can’t help thinking that the true meaning of the holidays which have been moved to Mondays has been diminished by that move.Regardless of when, where, or with whom you choose to celebrate your Thanksgiving, here’s wishing you a wonderfully happy day.Regardless of when, where, or with whom you choose to celebrate your Thanksgiving, here’s wishing you a wonderfully happy day.


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