George Washington issued the first presidential proclamation announcing a day of thanksgiving for the nation, but it wasn't until Abraham Lincoln that the presidential proclamation — and the holiday — became an national tradition. In 1863, Lincoln declared that Thanksgiving Day should be observed on the last Thursday of November.
The National Archives report that, in 1939, the last Thursday also was the last day of the month, and President Franklin Roosevelt, concerned that a late start to the Christmas shopping season would harm the economic recovery, issued a proclamation moving Thanksgiving to the second-to-last Thursday of November. For two years, 16 states refused to go along, and the holiday was observed on different days in different places. In 1941, Congress settled the matter by enacted a law setting the day as the fourth Thursday of November, to accommodate years — such as this one — in which November has five Thursdays.
More important than the date is the sentiment behind the celebration — that we are fortunate to live in this country and should pause and give thanks for the many blessings we enjoy. Here are excerpts from presidential Thanksgiving proclamations over the years.
"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 for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and 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 since 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."
— George Washington, Oct. 3, 1789
"I ... 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. 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, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity, and union."
— Abraham Lincoln, Oct. 3, 1863
"On Thanksgiving Day, individuals from all walks of life come together to celebrate this most American tradition, grateful for the blessings of family, community, and country. Let us spend this day by lifting up those we love, mindful of the grace bestowed upon us by God and by all who have made our lives richer with their presence."
— Barack Obama, Nov. 20, 2012
"Today, we continue to celebrate Thanksgiving with a grateful and charitable spirit. When we open our hearts and extend our hands to those in need, we show humility for the bountiful gifts we have received. In the aftermath of a succession of tragedies that have stunned and shocked our Nation — Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria; the wildfires that ravaged the West; and, the horrific acts of violence and terror in Las Vegas, New York City, and Sutherland Springs — we have witnessed the generous nature of the American people. In the midst of heartache and turmoil, we are grateful for the swift action of the first responders, law enforcement personnel, military and medical professionals, volunteers, and everyday heroes who embodied our infinite capacity to extend compassion and humanity to our fellow man. As we mourn these painful events, we are ever confident that the perseverance and optimism of the American people will prevail."
— Donald Trump, Nov. 17, 2017