How the fourth Thursday in November officially became Thanksgiving

The racist roots of our national celebration

By Christopher Petrella  |

President Trump, with first lady Melania Trump, pardons the Thanksgiving turkey in the Rose Garden of the White House on Tuesday. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

Christopher Petrella teaches in the critical race, gender, and culture studies collaborative at American University. He serves as the director of advocacy & strategic partnerships for the Antiracist Research & Policy Center, also at American University.

While many today may see Thanksgiving as simply an opportunity to gather with family or friends — a moment to be free of our frenetic political news cycle — the holiday’s early history was, in fact, marked by intense political meaning, especially in the decades leading up to it becoming a national holiday.

While much of our mainstream historical memory of Thanksgiving focuses on pilgrims and the Wampanoag eating together in 17th-century Plymouth, this omits a crucial chapter in Thanksgiving’s genealogy.

Not until the mid-19th century did the notion of a fixed and national Thanksgiving celebration enter popular discourse in a serious and sustained way. And no one person did more to promote such a vision than novelist and editor Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, known by her hagiographers today as the “Godmother of Thanksgiving.”

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