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Chapters in American Jewish History are provided by the American Jewish Historical Society, collecting, preserving, fostering scholarship and providing access to the continuity of Jewish life in America for more than 350 years (and counting). Visit www.ajhs.org.
The first “American” Thanksgiving was held in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621, attended by 90 Native Americans and 50 English Pilgrim settlers. That first Thanksgiving mirrored ancient harvest feasts such as Sukkot, the ancient Greek mid-June Thesmophorian celebration, and the ancient Roman Cerealian rites of mid-April.
The Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving was not an annual event, and did not become an American ritual for more than 200 years. To mark the adoption of the Constitution and the establishment of a new government, President George Washington declared November 26, 1789, a day of thanksgiving and prayer. However, Washington did not renew his declaration. It was not until 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, that President Abraham Lincoln fixed the last Thursday of each November as a “day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father.” After the Union triumphed, Thanksgiving Day became an even more significant observance in the northern states.
It was in this context that Governor John W. Geary of Pennsylvania, in 1868, issued a proclamation to the citizens of his state urging them to celebrate Thanksgiving. Geary’s proclamation read in part:
Unto God our Creator we are indebted for life and all its blessings. It therefore becomes us at all times to render unto Him the homage of grateful hearts . . .and I recommend that the people of this Commonwealth on [November 26th] refrain from their usual avocations and pursuits, and assemble at their chosen place of worship, to ‘praise the name of God and magnify Him with thanksgiving.
While such sentiments were not offensive, some of Geary’s additional words were: “Let us thank Him with Christian humility for health and prosperity,” Geary urged, and he called on Pennsylvanians to pray that “our paths through life may be directed by the example and instructions of the Redeemer, who died that we might enjoy the blessings which temporarily flow therefrom, and eternal life in the world to come.”
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