Thanksgiving & Christmas Origins

by Doug Payton

As promised, I received information about the origins of Thanksgiving and Christmas as federal holidays. Unfortunately, while I asked for copies of the bills that made these days government holidays, instead I got copies of the relevant portions of two books that members of Congress have use of in their legislative duties. In any event, what follows is information from two books; "Chase's Calendar of Events - 1996" from Contemporary Books and "Celebrations - The Complete Book of American Holidays" by Robert J. Myers.


First off, it has been alleged that Thanksgiving does not have the religious roots it is purported to have. This is interesting, given that the vast majority of its initial celebrants were religious refugees from England by way of Holland. The religious aspect of the first Thanksgiving celebration is obvious in this passage from the first Thanksgiving Proclamation, June 20th, 1676:

The Council has thought meet to appoint and set apart the 29th day of this instant June, as a day of Solemn Thanksgiving and praise to God for such his Goodness and Favour, many Particulars of which mercy might be Instanced, but we doubt not those who are sensible of God's Afflictions, have been as diligent to espy him returning to us; and that the Lord may behold us as a People offering Praise and thereby glorifying Him; the Council doth commend it to the Respective Ministers, Elders and people of this Jurisdiction; Solemnly and seriously to keep the same Beseeching that being perswaded by the mercies of God we may all, even this whole people offer up our bodies and soulds as a living and acceptable Service unto God by Jesus Christ.

Thanksgiving was a harvest celebration that acknowledged God as the Provider. These are Puritans we're talking about here.

The history of Thanksgiving in American government started with the first President in the year of his inauguration. From the "Celebrations" book, this is George Washington in 1789:

Now, therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th 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; and that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country, previous to becoming a nation; for the signal manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of His providence, in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquillity, union and plenty which we have enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish Constitutions of Government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors, which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

From the "Chase" book:

President George Washington proclaimed Nov. 26, 1789, to be Thanksgiving Day. Both Houses of Congress, by their joint committee, had requested him to recommend a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity to peaceably establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.

So not only was the first celebrated Thanksgiving religious in nature, but the first proclamation that started the ball rolling in the new American government (a proclamation requested by a joint committee of Congress, no less) was unabashedly so. It was a day of thanksgiving to God. (Washington was, I believe, a Congregationalist, so I'm pretty confident that's who he's talking about with the words "Being" and "Author".) Washington issued another proclamation in 1795.

It gets interesting here, because there wasn't a consensus as to the worth of the day. Puritans, interestingly, refused to recognize a set date for Thanksgiving because they believed Thanksgiving should be more spontaneous. And who also "actively condemned" it? A name you'll recognize; Thomas Jefferson. Unfortunately, "Celebrations" says no more than that. I would be very interested in knowing whether Jefferson's objections were personal or whether they were Constitutionally motivated. Nonetheless, I once said that every President from Washington to Lincoln proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving, and "Celebrations" implies that aspect is apparently in error. It does mention, however, James Madison's request that the nation "observe a day of Thanksgiving and peace in remembrance of the War of 1812".

But "Celebrations" says that Thanksgiving was still observed as a religious event. More and more states began to adopt it as an official holiday. However, some governors considered it to be state interference with religion and so avoided it. (I see a difference between considering something an "interference with religion" and "state sponsorship of a religion". The former is what the governors' concern was, the latter is what concerns the "separation of church and state" crowd. They are not equivalent.)

More and more states began celebrating Thanksgiving (and most on the same day). Finally, on October 3, 1863, President Lincoln issued this Thanksgiving Proclamation, after which Thanksgiving became a national holiday.

From "Celebrations":

The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, other have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and provoke their aggressions, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict....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....

The article goes on to say that the specific date for Thanksgiving is set by presidential proclamation each year which, with two exceptions, has always been the fourth Thursday in November.

This information clears up this outstanding issue: Thanksgiving, both in its celebratory roots and its legislative history as a national holiday, is distinctly religious in nature. From its initial observation by the Puritans through (at least) Lincoln's proclamation, it has been quite clear who was being thanked; God. It also adds one reason (if not more) to discount the idea that the First Amendment precludes the government acknowledging religion in this way. Both houses of Congress requested this holiday with language that acknowledged the "many and signal favors of Almighty God". And in 1789! Sure, Jefferson may not have liked the idea, but many, many others who would know the original intent and may have even participated in the debate of the First Amendment did not. This one event alone should be enough to dispel any myths about original intent. Is it possible that Jefferson's view of "separation of church and state" was a minority opinion and that it doesn't accurately portray the view of most of the Constitution's framers? There's a thought.


Unfortunately, neither "Chase" nor "Celebrations" gives much insight into the history of Christmas as a national holiday, though "Celebrations" does delve heavily into its origins as a celebration of Christ's birth. Here is what it does say with regard to legislation:

Alabama was the first state to grant legal recognition to Christmas, in 1836. By 1890 all the states and territories had made similar acknowledgment, including the District of Columbia in 1870. It is interesting to note that Christmas is the only annual religious holiday to receive this official and secular sanction.

(Some might see that last sentence as stating, in the opinion of the "Celebrations" authors, that Thanksgiving is not an annual religious holiday. In answer to that, one must understand that the celebration of Christmas goes back to the third century as an official church holiday. Thanksgiving really only became truly annual when it was made an official state holiday.)

Here again we have an action taken by every state, the District of Columbia, and the federal government, that goes against what some people of a particular constitutional belief from laymen to Supreme Court justices say that the First Amendment prohibits. This, too, taken by itself, shows that ideas about Constitutional thought nowadays (and "nowadays" would get special emphasis if I were speaking instead of typing) is flat-out wrong. The framers of the Constitution did not intend for religious expression to be stifled anywhere, even in government itself. Those far closer in time than we to those framers understood it as well, and their actions are in harmony with the framers. Coercion they were against, and for good reason, but not expression. And setting up an official national holiday for the birth of Christ or specifically for thanking God was not considered coercion or establishing an official state religion.

And after all, that's what this discussion was all about in the first place. The Constitution of the United States prohibits the establishment of a state religion, and calls for free religious expression. What does that mean? Look at how it was practiced in the past by those who crafted the Constitution and to those who were separated from them by far fewer years than we are today. Their actions will plainly show what they meant.

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