The first Thanksgiving celebration held in America occurred in 1619. On December fourth of that year, thirty-eight English settlers arrived at the Berkeley Plantation in Virginia. Part of their original charter stated that they would set aside that day every year and observe it as a day of Thanksgiving. Due to the hardships of those early times and various other factors, the celebration turned out to be a short-lived occurrence.
The next recorded celebration is also the most famous. Plymouth, Massachusetts, 1621. The first winter the Pilgrims had in the "˜New World' was a brutal one (nearly half of those who came over on the Mayflower died). Times did eventually grow easier on them though, the following harvest season was so bountiful in fact that the Pilgrims decided to hold a feast for celebration and thanksgiving. This "˜festival', which lasted three days, included the participation of nearly one hundred Native Americans. Governor William Bradford had invited the natives to show them appreciation, for helping his colony survive through the harsh weather conditions.
The next "˜thanksgiving' celebration did not occur until 1623. This year the Pilgrims were again hit with a great natural hardship, a draught. In the hope of bringing much needed rain, they gathered together in a prayer service. The next morning it started to rain and it rained long and hard for the next several days. When it became apparent that the crops (and the colonists) would survive, Governor Bradford declared that they would hold another day of thanksgiving (the Indians were again invited). As other settlers came to the country, they held their own thanksgiving celebrations, but each celebration was independent of the next.
In 1668 the Plymouth General Court tried to bring some order to the celebration by declaring November 25th to be Thanksgiving. It was a proclamation that only lasted within the colony for five years.
How Thanksgiving came to be held on a Thursday is not widely known. A very logical belief is that the first Thanksgivings were held on Thursday (and in some cases Wednesday) so as to not interfere with the Sabbath. During these times, the Sabbath was an extremely important day; Saturday was a day of preparation and Monday was out to give the Sabbath it's proper respect so with these "˜restrictions' Thursday becomes an easy choice.
The first national celebration of Thanksgiving occurred in 1777. This one-time only event occurred at this time also as a way to celebrate the American defeat of the British at Saratoga.
The day worked it's way on and off local calendars until 1789 when George Washington made the first Presidential proclamation declaring Thanksgiving a national event. The first Thanksgiving held under this proclamation occurred on November 26 of that year. The pattern was set.
When he was named as the Second President of the United States, John Adams, in an effort to be different, declared a day of Thanksgiving but moved it from Thursday to the Wednesday previous. Finding it brought more resistance than he felt it was worth, Adams relented and changed the day back.
When it was Thomas Jefferson's turn as President, he decided against the idea of Thanksgiving. At this time, many were against the idea of taking a day to honor the hard times of a few pilgrims. And so it went for nearly sixty years, until Sarah Josepha Hale came to bat.
A magazine editor, Hale wrote strong editorials in many of the popular magazines of the time (including Boston Ladies' Magazine and Godey's Lady's Book), she also wrote letters to anyone and everyone (including Presidents, Governors, Congress members and others) who might help her cause. She was concerned with her belief that the country needed to set aside a day to give thanks "˜unto him from who all blessings flow'.
Finally she struck the right chord with Abraham Lincoln and in 1863, Hale saw her dream realized as the President declared the last Thursday of November as a national day of Thanksgiving.
For the most part, it is a day that has stayed. In the 1930's President Roosevelt tried to move the date a bit. He tried to slide it forward by a week to extend the Christmas shopping season. Facing immense critical outrage, he moved the day back with little fanfare. Later during Roosevelt's administration, in 1941, Congress declared the fourth Thursday in November to be the legal Holiday known as Thanksgiving.
It should be noted that while Thanksgiving has become a holiday deeply associated with America, there have been numerous "˜harvest', autumn, and "˜thanksgiving' festivals throughout history including Grecian, Roman and Egyptian celebrations.