Thursday, November 24, 2011

Yes, But Why Thursday?

Every year about this time, a gently nagging but generally fleeting question crosses my mind.

Why, I wonder, is Thanksgiving celebrated on a Thursday?

The fact that Thanksgiving occurs every year on a Thursday seems so natural -- so divinely ordained -- that we take it for granted.  Even when that question nags me, what I usually do is resolve to check it out on Wikipedia, and then never carry through on the resolution.  (What?  A Thanksgiving resolution?  Seems like cognitive dissonance, especially if, like a typical New Year's resolution, it involves diet and exercise.)

In any case, at long last my question was answered, in an article by Monica Hesse on the front page of Wednesday's Washington Post, in which she discusses the origins and benefits of long holiday weekends.

Looking at the history of Thanksgiving, Hesse reveals why it's always been on Thursday.  Not pre-ordained, as one might expect, but rooted in the mundane:
The first federally endorsed Thanksgiving holiday was the one proclaimed by George Washington in 1789. More than 70 years later, Abraham Lincoln issued his own proclamation. But between those events were decades of relentless lobbying and letter-writing campaigns by Sarah Josepha Hale, a New Hampshirite who made it her life’s mission to formalize the then-ad hoc holiday. (She also wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”)

In Hale’s mid-19th-century heyday, “the only American holidays were Independence Day and Washington’s birthday,” says Penny Colman, who wrote “Thanksgiving: The True Story.” “And those were both military holidays — full of bombs and explosions.” Hale wanted a holiday that would honor domestic tranquility and not, you know, blowing stuff up. Additionally, she wanted it on a Thursday.

Partly, that was to honor George Washington, whose own proclamation had been Thursday-scheduled. The other part? To honor housewives. “Thursday is the most convenient day of the week for a domestic holiday,” Hale wrote in one of her dozens of Thanksgiving editorials. What with all of the washing on Mondays and ironing on Tuesdays, Thursdays seemed like the best opportunity for a homemaker to prepare a meal and still get to hang out with her visiting family.

Hale’s letters are credited with ultimately bending Lincoln’s ear and prompting him to standardize the Thursday feast. Had she opted for Wednesday or Sunday, the country might not know the joys of awkwardly long family gatherings or waiting in line at 5 a.m. on Black Friday for Best Buy’s deeply discounted television sets.
My guess is that more complete information, both on the origins of Thanksgiving as an annual observation and specifically on how it came to be observed on a Thursday each November, can be found in the 2009 book, Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday by James W. Baker, as well as in the book by Penny Colman mentioned in the Post article.
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