November is a very patriotic month with Election Day, Veteran’s Day and Thanksgiving Day, three quintessential American holidays, all in the same month. The origins of these holidays are deeply rooted in our country’s history and tradition, but not everyone knows how these holidays came to be, who and what they honor and why we celebrate them today with family and friends.
Election Day: Celebrated the first Tuesday in November every year
The first motivation to place the National Elections on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November, was to satisfy a law from 1792 that electors meet at the beginning of December and, therefore, elections to choose those electors had to be held within a month’s time before that date.
Holding elections in November also made good sense in the 18th and 19th centuries because November is mild compared to later months and the harvest of most crops was completed by then, so farmers could take the time off to get to the polls.
As transportation and communications improved it became obvious that a single election day was needed since results in earlier states could influence outcomes in states that voted later. It was also feared that some people might cross state lines to vote twice given the opportunity.
In addition, establishing that day after the first Monday avoided Old Saints Day, a Catholic holiday. A Tuesday election day would also give farmers Monday to travel for a Tuesday election, avoiding the need to travel on Sunday, the Sabbath.
So, in 1845, Congress passed a law that Election Day would officially be on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November and that holds fast to this day.
Veterans Day: Celebrated every year on November 11
The original name of Veterans Day was Armistice Day, established to honor World War I veterans and the day WWI officially ended, November 11, 1918. In 1954, after suffering through World War II and the Korean War, the 83rd congress legally changed Armistice Day to Veterans Day at the urging of veterans’ groups to honor all veterans of all wars past and future.
In 1968, the Uniforms Holiday Bill provided for three-day holiday weekends by moving the actual dates of Washington’s and Lincoln’s Birthdays (Presidents Day), Memorial Day, Columbus Day and Veteran’s Day to Mondays, placing Veteran’s Day on the fourth Monday of October. This caused some confusion, so in 1975 President Gerald Ford officially placed Veteran’s Day on the original date of November 11th when it is celebrated to this day.
Thanksgiving Day: Celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November every year
Most people relate the Thanksgiving celebration to Pilgrims, Indian corn, the autumn harvest and Quaker settlers. In fact, in 1863, after the Battle at Gettysburg in the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that our nation would celebrate an official Thanksgiving holiday. Secretary of State William Seward wrote the speech proclaiming the fourth Thursday every November thereafter would be considered an official national holiday.
George Washington first suggested a holiday of thanksgiving on Thursday November 26th 1789, but an official holiday was not established at that time. Later, Thomas Jefferson, our third president, expressed the opinion that the separation of church and state prohibited the demonstration of faith to a higher power inappropriate and subsequent presidents agreed with him. In fact, a president issued no official proclamation again until Lincoln took the opportunity to thank the Union Army for a shift in the country’s fortunes at Gettysburg.
The fourth Thursday of November remained the annual day of Thanksgiving until 1939 when Franklin Roosevelt moved the holiday to the third Thursday in November, hoping the extra shopping time between then and Christmas would give the economy during the depression a shot in the arm. However, later in his administration in 1941, Congress insisted that the fourth Thursday be set permanently as the last Thursday in November.
So, why do we associate Thanksgiving with turkey, stuffing, potatoes and pumpkin pie? Well, the story of the first Thanksgiving in about 1621 was 200 years before the official holiday was established. As the story goes, newly settled pilgrims celebrated their first harvest with a three day festival of hunting, feasting, games and other entertainment with local native Americans in attendance. There was no turkey, pie or potatoes because these foods had not been introduced yet. In 1827, writer Sara Josepha Hale, who wrote the nursery rhyme Mary Had a Little Lamb, began a thirty-year campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. She published recipes for turkey with bread stuffing, pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce that established the modern Thanksgiving meal.
Thanksgiving has emerged as the most popular secular holiday because it took decades, beginning in the infancy of our great country, to establish the nuances of the holiday that we celebrate today, constructed of various stories and historical events that, combined, have formed one of the great American traditions.