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The History (And Crazy Fight) Over When To Celebrate Thanksgiving In NC

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Today is Thanksgiving Day, legally defined as the fourth Thursday in November. But here in North Carolina it wasn’t always thus. We might even want to give thanks a specific day was eventually set.

Harvest festivals and days of thanksgiving were popular with early North Carolinians, so to track down the first officially mandated Thanksgiving, you need an expert. Someone who's plowed through an eyesight-blurring amount of historical records. Until they’ve found the one. In other words you need Jason Tomberlin, head of research and instructional services for the Wilson special collection library at UNC Chapel Hill. "From what I’ve seen in the records this is the earliest one we had here in the state of North Carolina."

And it came when this Great State was really just a toddler.

The year was 1777 when Richard Caswell Esquire, Governor, Captain General and Commander in Chief of the State (yes that was his whole title) did what governors do. Issue a proclamation.

...appointing Friday the Twenty Eighth Day of this Instant to be observed in all Churches and Congregations in this State as a Day of General and Solemn Thanksgiving.

It was in November, but why Friday the 28th? Well, this first Thanksgiving wasn’t about British citizens with buckles on their hats. It was all about British soldiers with muskets in hand.

Whereas I have received authenticated Intelligence that General Burgoyne, and the whole Army under his Command, after repeated Losses, surrendered themselves as prisoners of War to General Gates on the Fourteenth Day of October last.

That would be British General John Burgoyne surrendering to American General Horatio Gates after the Battle of Saratoga. It was just one victory but Jason Tomberlin from UNC says it was a pretty big deal. "Which really took us to a point where other countries in Europe would recognize us and assist us through the American Revolution." Which is why Governor Caswell ordered North Carolinians,

To embrace this opportunity of testifying, in the most solemn Manner, those Sentiments of Gratitude which the happy Event so justly demands.

Spoiler alert – the Americans go on to win the Revolutionary War – and there was rejoicing.

And in 1789 President George Washington proclaimed the first national day of Thanksgiving for Thursday the 26th of November. Just for that year.

A national Thanksgiving was an on again off again thing for the next 74 years. Left up to the whim of each president as to if and when it would be held.

Abraham Lincoln decided that wouldn’t do and formalized the holiday to be held on the last Thursday of November.

But that date wasn’t so good for another war time president.

In 1939, Franklin Delano Roosevelt decided Turkey day needed to be a bit earlier. That year Thanksgiving was to fall on the last day of November. And I’m not kidding here, FDR was concerned it would hurt the economy by shortening the Christmas shopping season. So FDR moved Thanksgiving up one week – to the fourth Thursday in November.

Twenty-three states said in essence, meh...ok. Three states decided to celebrate Thanksgiving twice. But 22 states outright said no. And North Carolina was squarely in the no camp. It wasn’t until an act of congress in 1941 that today, the fourth Thursday of November, became officially, for everyone, Thanksgiving.