The recent holiday prompts me to consider the truth behind our stories.  Many of our assumptions about Thanksgiving are only shades of the truth.  The Plimoth Plantation provides a thorough summary of Thanksgiving food traditions — but suffice it to say that the first celebration among the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag didn’t happen on the fourth Thursday in November and didn’t include most of the foods that we now associate with the holiday.

As for the timing of Thanksgiving, President Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation in 1789, and most subsequent presidents also issued annual proclamations.  It was President Lincoln who established the last Thursday in November as the time for the holiday.  In the midst of the Civil War, he issued a proclamation encouraging all American people to celebrate Thanksgiving as means of starting to heal the wounds of the nation.

During the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt was concerned that businesses would suffer when Thanksgiving occurred late in November because most people did their Christmas shopping after Thanksgiving.  In 1939, Thanksgiving would have been on November 30th, so FDR issued a proclamation moving the holiday to the second to last Thursday of the month.  This action created much uproar — the FDR Library provides a sampling of the letters sent to the President (my favorite has to be the one sent from a calendar representative).  Many states didn’t abide by his proclamation, which obviously generated great confusion, but in 1941 Congress passed a joint resolution making the fourth Thursday in November Thanksgiving.  I wonder what FDR would think about Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday!

One question that occurs to me is why war has had such an influence on the celebration of Thanksgiving.  But more importantly, I have to ponder what influence truth has on memory.  Many people have their own versions about the why and when of Thanksgiving, which are more likely to be based on family traditions than on historical artifacts.  While archives can make available to people the records that document the past, but there is no way to force people to adopt one consistent and accurate view of history.