There are a number of things privileged Americans take for granted on Thanksgiving—and it’s important to remember that eating a delicious meal in the company of friends and family is a luxury many cannot afford (and one that you definitely should not engage in this year in any case); and that the country you live in belonged to indigenous people before it was colonized by Puritans in the 1600s—but the most mundane, reliable, yet perplexing fact of the holiday is that our annual celebration of gluttony will always happen on a Thursday.
In the midst of stuffing your face silly, you might stop and ask yourself why you’re chowing down on turkey and all the fixins on a Thursday instead of a Friday or Monday, like most other national holidays. The reasons behind Thanksgiving’s place on the calendar stretches into the distance past of our politics, when powerful men made proclamations about when the country would gather around the table to pray and eat.
Puritans set the precedent
The concept of Thanksgiving is rooted in the United States’ puritan past. Even prior to the American Revolution and the inking of the Constitution, colonial leaders would call for days of thanks to commemorate various community triumphs, such as a victorious battle against Native Americans or surviving a dangerous cold snap.
In exploring the holiday’s origins, Time cites the book Thanksgiving: An American Holiday, an American History, by historian Diana Karter Appelbaum, noting how other days of the week weren’t appropriate for a formal day of thanks, owing to the crowded religious schedule.
At first no particular day of the week was reserved for Thanksgiving, but some days thought more appropriate than others. Puritans observe the Sabbath as a biblical ordinance and did not intrude their Thanksgivings upon it. Since Saturday was occupied with preparations for the Sabbath, and Monday was the day just after, these were not convenient choices. Friday was ruled out because it was the fast day of the Catholic Church and any day of prayer held on a Friday would have had Rome-ish overtones. However, Thursday was a lecture day in Boston. Ministers offered afternoon sermons for those with the leisure time to attend weekday religious meetings. Perhaps for this reason, Thursday early became the favorite day for fasts and Thanksgivings. Although other days were occasionally chosen, Thursday became the traditional choice.
George Washington formalized it
After the United States shook off the yoke of colonial rule and became an independent nation, George Washington sought to formalize thankfulness with a holiday. On Oct. 3, 1789, the first president declared that a national day of thanks would take place on Thursday, Nov. 26 to commemorate god and the constitution.
Reading Washington’s proclamation, you can glean a sense of the first Thanksgiving’s very religious overtones:
Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be—That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks
Abraham Lincoln formalized it even further
Thanksgiving isn’t quite the heavy-handed religious ceremony it used to be (depending upon how you personally choose to celebrate it). Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving more about appreciating the privilege of living in a democracy, rather than paying tribute to the almighty.
The Civil War had something to do with it: In late 1863, even as the nation waged a destructive war with itself, the Union Army was finally eyeing victory. Also on Oct. 3, Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring Thanksgiving an annual holiday to take place on the last Thursday of November. Coopting the date of the existing day of giving thanks served a greater purpose than paying religious homage; as biographer Ronald C. White Jr. told USA Today: “[Lincoln] was always looking for ways to unify the nation in a terrible time of war.”
Congress made it official
There was one moment of controversy surrounding the date of Thanksgiving, and it came in 1939, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president. After the Great Depression gave American merchants a rightful sense of economic paranoia, many of them lobbied FDR to move Thanksgiving up a week, so the holiday wouldn’t interfere with Christmas tree sales. The president obliged, sparking backlash from various governors, who vowed to keep the holiday on November 30, or whenever the last Thursday occurred.
Some states, however, did move observe of the holiday to earlier in the month, sparking a weeklong scheduling conflict between Thanksgivings in various states. As the National Archives explain:
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.
Luckily, Congress intervened on Oct. 6, 1941. To make everyone happy, it formally solidified Thanksgiving as occurring on the fourth Thursday of November, even in years when five Thursdays fall within the month. The decision was made right after the attacks on Pearl Harbor, and national unity was forming around the country’s nascent involvement in WWII.
So, there definitely is a reason you’ve celebrated Thanksgiving on the same day of the month your whole life. It’s rooted in this country’s religious underpinnings and efforts to forge collective enthusiasm in times of war. And that sounds pretty American, doesn’t it?