Forget the Pilgrims, forget Plymouth Rock, forget Squanto: The real origin of modern Thanksgiving, as with so much else of goodness in our national tradition, comes directly from the pen of Abraham Lincoln, who declared that this day in 1863—the last Thursday in November—be set aside for the giving of thanks. There had, of course, been many thanksgivings declared before, but not until Lincoln’s proclamation was a specific day finally fixed it. With the exception of a few years under the reign of Franklin Roosevelt—who moved it up a week to allow Americans more time to try to shop themselves out of the Depression—on the last Thursday it has since remained.

The most interesting piece about Thanksgiving in The Nation’s archives is this brief item from the recurring “In the Driftway” column (always written by a pseudonymous “Drifter”), from November 1931, criticizing President Herbert Hoover’s Thanksgiving Day message for its over-inflated ebullience about how much Americans really had to be thankful for during those miserable years.

With the third winter of widespread unemployment nearly upon us, in all its ugliness, want, and distress, Thanksgiving Day has not a genuine ring. Somehow it sounds ill-suited to the times. The President’s counsel that “our people rest from their daily labors” brings to the Drifter’s mind some ten million jobless to whom that advice will seem more than slightly ironical. And he wonders how many of that army stopped work on Thanksgiving Day in 1929, not realizing that they would still be resting two years later. Will they be duly appreciative, as the President is, that “the passing adversity which has come upon us” is a “spiritual” blessing?

November 26, 1980

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