Thanksgiving is one of the most important holidays in the United States. Tens of millions of Americans travel to be with family, to feast, and to be thankful.
The federal holiday has many things attached to its celebration, from big meals to football games and even a few major parades.
Here are some interesting facts about the observance, from its complex history and 20th century debates over its timing to the statistics on travel.
Thanksgiving Was Not a Fixed Observance at First
The modern concept of Thanksgiving dates back centuries, deriving from assorted religious and harvest festival traditions in Europe.
Ann Berry, executive director for The Pilgrim Society & Pilgrim Hall Museum located in Plymouth, Massachusetts, told The Christian Post in an earlier interview about how Thanksgiving could happen any time during the year.
"In the early 17th century, a Day of Thanksgiving was declared by a religious leader as a time for contemplation, prayer and, often, fasting in response to a special act of Divine Providence — rain after a drought for example," explained Berry.
"There were also civilly declared Days of Thanksgiving in response to an event such as a victory in battle or the end of war. Several were declared in the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay Colonies."
Thanksgiving Celebrations That Predate Plymouth
When people think of the first Thanksgiving, generally what comes to mind are images of Pilgrims and Indians eating together in colonial Massachusetts.
Widely considered the "First Thanksgiving," this event took place in November 1621 when the Plymouth colonists and members of the Wampanoag tribe shared in an autumn harvest feast.
However, other parts of the nation also stake claim to celebrating Thanksgiving before the Pilgrims. These places include St. Augustine, Florida (Sept. 8, 1565), San Elizario, Texas (April 20, 1598), and Berkeley Plantation, Virginia (Dec. 4, 1619).
George Washington Issues Thanksgiving Proclamation
Not only was George Washington the first president of the United States, he was also the first president to issue a Thanksgiving proclamation.
"Washington issued a proclamation on October 3, 1789, designating Thursday, November 26 as a national day of thanks," noted historian T.K. Byron on the historic Mount Vernon's website.
"In his proclamation, Washington declared that the necessity for such a day sprung from the Almighty's care of Americans prior to the Revolution, assistance to them in achieving independence, and help in establishing the constitutional government."
Washington's proclamation did not establish a permanent date for a federal observance, however, and later he issued a similar proclamation in February 1795 to celebrate the defeat of a rebellion in Pennsylvania over taxation.
Abraham Lincoln Sets a Thanksgiving Day Precedent
President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation for Thanksgiving on October 3, 1863, reportedly at the behest of magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale.
"No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy," stated the proclamation in part.
"I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens."
While proclamations had been issued before this one, Lincoln is credited with setting the precedent of late November being the date for a national thanksgiving observance.
A States' Rights Controversy Over Thanksgiving
From 1863 to 1939, the president annually issued a proclamation for a Day of Thanksgiving to fall on the last Thursday of November.
However, when in 1939 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt saw that the last Thursday fell on the last day of the month, he sought to change things, according to the National Archives.
"Concerned that the shortened Christmas shopping season might dampen the economic recovery, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a Presidential Proclamation moving Thanksgiving to the second to last Thursday of November," noted the Archives' website.
"As a result of the proclamation, 32 states issued similar proclamations while 16 states refused to accept the change and proclaimed Thanksgiving to be the last Thursday in November. For two years two days were celebrated as Thanksgiving — the President and part of the nation celebrated it on the second to last Thursday in November, while the rest of the country celebrated it the following week."
Congress Makes It Official
After the controversy over President Franklin D. Roosevelt's moving of Thanksgiving, Congress passed a resolution in 1941 fixing the date for the observance.
"The Federal Thanksgiving Day holiday was established in 1941 following the passage of a joint resolution, H.J. Res. 41, by the House of Representatives on October 6, 1941, declaring the 'last Thursday in November a legal holiday,'" noted a Library of Congress website entry from 2010.
"The Senate then passed an amendment 'making the fourth Thursday in November a legal holiday.' President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the resolution on December 6, 1941, with the law taking effect from 1942."
51 Million Americans Expected to Travel This Year
Thanksgiving is a holiday associated with large numbers of Americans taking to the road or to the air to travel long distances to celebrate.
According to a report by AAA, approximately 50.9 million Americans will travel at least 50 miles for the Thanksgiving holiday, up 3.3 percent from 2016.
"The 2017 holiday weekend will see the highest Thanksgiving travel volume since 2005 with 1.6 million more people taking to the nation's roads, skies, rails and waterways compared with last year," noted AAA.
"AAA and INRIX, a global transportation analytics company, predict travel times in the most congested cities in the U.S. during the holiday week could be as much as three times longer than the optimal trip."